Inslee announces new path on water quality rule, continues work on broader toxics reduction efforts

Story Body

Gov. Jay Inslee today announced he’s directing the state Department of Ecology to draft a new clean water rule that will preserve the state’s decision-making control over how to meet federal requirements. The Clean Water Act requires states to establish standards for how clean our waters need to be and to control pollution limits for businesses and municipalities that are permitted to discharge wastewater.

The Environmental Protection Agency is requiring Washington state to update its clean water rule. In July 2014, Inslee proposed an innovative solution that paired a water quality rule with toxics reduction legislation and funding to reduce everyday pollutants at their source. This approach would have made meaningful progress in ways the rule alone can’t address. Legislators failed to pass the toxics package this year, so Inslee directed Ecology to evaluate other options likely to win EPA approval.

“My goal all along has been to update Washington’s clean water rule with one that assures the health of Washington’s people, fish and economy,” Inslee said. “The number one thing I hear over and over when talking with people is how critical it is that we maintain control over creation of this rule to ensure that we’re protecting human health while providing businesses and local governments sensible tools to comply with the stricter standards.”

The EPA last month released its own draft rule and said it will adopt the new standards if Washington state does not proceed with a new proposal. EPA has indicated that if the state submits a new proposal, it will pause the process on its rule.

The clean water standard involves a complex equation of numerous factors.

One key factor upon which the state, EPA and most stakeholders agree is updating the fish consumption rate from 6.5 grams a day per person – equivalent to one bite of fish – to 175 grams a day per person, equivalent to one small filet.

The factor most central to recent discussions has been the proposed cancer risk rate. Ecology’s earlier rule proposed a rate of 10-5. The new rule will propose 10-6. A theoretical cancer risk rate of 10-6 means that if a person were to eat 175 grams of fish from Washington waters every day for 70 years, he or she would have a 1 in a million chance of developing cancer. While both 10-5 and 10-6 are within EPA’s protection guidance, EPA has said it prefers 10-6 and made it their formal position in the rule they put forth.

But Inslee said the other factors beyond fish consumption and cancer risk rate make a big difference in ensuring businesses and municipalities can comply.

For example, Ecology’s proposed rule addresses the unique nature of PCBs, mercury and arsenic. Mercury and arsenic come from human-caused and naturally occurring sources. The sources of PCBs are widespread and globally transported. The state proposes keeping the current level of protection for PCBs and mercury. The limit for arsenic would be set at the federal drinking water standard. This approach, Inslee says, recognizes that dischargers can’t reasonably be held accountable for chemical levels beyond their control.

In addition, implementation tools and timelines will provide more flexibility for businesses to comply. EPA’s proposed rule doesn’t include implementation tools.

Inslee said his original concerns about the ability of the Clean Water Act and the clean water rule to solve today’s pollution challenges remain.

“The proposed rule only regulates 96 chemicals, yet there are hundreds of toxics that come from everyday products,” Inslee said. “The toxics package we sent to the Legislature would have helped us take a hard run at those to make a much more meaningful difference in making our water safer and healthier.”

Inslee is directing Ecology to continue its collaborative approach at finding the key sources of toxic chemicals before they end up in our water and our bodies. Ecology and the state Department of Health have successfully used a tool called chemical action plans that brings stakeholders together to find the best ways to reduce the impacts of toxics on human health and the environment. The governor wants to use these action plans to identify where these chemicals are coming from and provide solutions to reduce their impact.

Ecology will begin drafting the rule immediately and make it available for public comment in early 2016.

Media Contacts

Jaime Smith
Governor Inslee’s Communications Office

Sandi Peck
Department of Ecology