Inslee takes new approach to create meaningful, effective state clean water standards

Story Body

Inslee takes new approach to create meaningful, effective state clean water standards

Gov. Jay Inslee today announced his proposed update to the state's water quality standards, saying he worked until he found a solution that advanced the values of human, environmental and economic health.

The federal Clean Water Act requires states to establish water quality standards used by state regulators to set limits for certain pollutants discharged by permitted dischargers such as local governments and some businesses. Washington's current standards were set in 1992 and focus on controlling pollution coming out of large pipes from large facilities. Inslee said the standards are out of date and the federal approach to clean water is inadequate to address today’s threats to clean water.

"It is clear to me that Washington state needs to reach beyond the confines of our historical regulatory approaches and recognize how water pollution has changed in the 40 years since the Clean Water Act became law," Inslee said. "Forty years ago we were fighting big pipes spewing toxic contaminants into our water. We’ve come a long way since then in getting that kind of pollution under control. Today the majority of toxic pollution comes from chemicals that are used to make so much of what we use today, from the brakes on our cars to the flame retardants in our furniture."

The primary purpose of the Clean Water Act is to ensure water is safe for its intended uses. The standards — which apply to just 96 out of tens of thousands of chemicals in daily commerce — include calculations for multiple factors, including theoretical cancer risk rates and how much fish Washingtonians consume. The federal government provides some leeway to states in determining these numbers, which have been the subject of public debate.

Current standards assume Washingtonians consume 6.5 grams of fish per day, or about one serving per month. There is widespread agreement that many people in the state consume much more fish than this, but disagreement about whether the new rule should account for the highest-consumers — such as Native Americans or those who fish for recreation — or a lower average number. The higher the fish consumption rate, the more stringent water quality rules become for businesses and local governments.

The current standards also assume a theoretical cancer risk rate of 10-6, meaning that if a person were to eat a 6.5 gram serving of fish from Washington waters every day for 70 years, he or she would have a 1 in 1 million chance of developing cancer.

"Many people have seen the mandate to update our water quality standards as a choice between protecting human health or protecting the economy. I reject that choice because both values are essential to our future," Inslee said.

Inslee's proposal updates Washington's water quality standards to be more protective of those who consume 175 grams of fish per day — an increase from one serving per month to one serving per day — with a 10-5 cancer risk rate. In every case where this cancer risk rate would result in less protective standards than we have today, current standards will be maintained. In fact, of the 96 chemicals regulated under the rule, about 70 percent will have new, more protective standards.

A separate approach will be used for arsenic, a naturally occurring element in waters throughout the state. Because the current standard for arsenic is set below levels that occur naturally in much of our surface and ground water, the governor proposes using the federal drinking water standard for arsenic.

“Washingtonians’ actual risk to cancer and other harmful effects will be reduced by this proposal,” Inslee said. “We are making our waters cleaner and safer.”

The governor also proposed new implementation rules that will make it possible for businesses and municipalities to comply with the more stringent requirements.

But Inslee said the state must also act on the many toxic chemicals from other unregulated sources that the Clean Water Act doesn't address. Inslee said he is calling on the Legislature next year to pass a toxics reduction bill as part of the state’s submittal to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"We could set standards at a thousand grams per day with a cancer risk rate of 10-20, but it still wouldn’t do anything to protect our children from exposure to too many toxics that cause neurological and reproductive damage,” Inslee said. “This toxics reduction bill gives us the tools to tackle pollutants at their source and make meaningful improvements in the health of our water, our fish and our children.”

Inslee’s toxic reduction package is based on five key elements:

  • Immediate action by the state departments of Health and Ecology to identify actions to combat PCBs, phthalate plasticizers, toxic flame retardants and zinc.
  • Removal of toxic chemicals from consumer products where they are causing pollution and safer alternatives are readily available.
  • Elimination of specific sources of problem chemicals in polluted watersheds.
  • Investment in more monitoring and research related to improving how we identify pollution sources and development of new prevention and cleanup strategies and technologies.
  • Accountability and transparency measures to ensure resources are being prioritized effectively and measurements of progress are reported to the public and Legislature.

Inslee is directing the Department of Ecology to issue a preliminary draft rule no later than Sept. 30. He will submit legislation to the Legislature in 2015 and will make a decision on whether to adopt the final rule only after seeing the outcome of the session. He will ask the EPA to consider the benefits of the full package in determining federal approval of Washington’s clean water standards.

“I believe this approach honors our commitment to keep our children healthy and protect those who regularly eat fish, and doesn’t create ineffective and undue requirements on a small number of businesses and governments,” Inslee said. “I look forward to working with legislators, businesses, tribes, health care professionals and others to ensure we do the right thing for Washington state and work together for successful implementation of this integrated plan.”

Policy brief:

Media Contacts

Office of the Governor
Jaime Smith