How the state is failing to protect Washington communities from toxics in our waterways
When the Clean Water Act was written in 1972, it marked a huge shift in the way our nation thinks about pollution. The Act stipulated that toxic pollution must be controlled to support swimmable, fishable and drinkable water resources for all. As part of the Act, states are responsible for setting water quality standards designed to “protect public health or welfare, enhance the quality of water and serve the purposes of the Clean Water Act.”
These standards are based on information—what we know about different pollutants, how dangerous they are, and what levels might make people sick. The standards include information about how much fish people eat, because toxic chemicals in the water often accumulate in fish and shellfish and the more we eat the great our exposure is. Water quality standards are meant to set goals for how clean a water body should be, regardless of its current state of pollution. They set the bar for achievement, and they give the state and other entities the authority to enforce limits on pollution and use tools to ease implementation.
Since 1992, Washington has had standards based on a national average of data, which doesn’t reflect the fish consumption habits of a state known around the country for high-quality fresh local fish and shellfish. As soon as reliable data showed many people were eating much more fish than the national average, our state government was tasked with rewriting those water quality standards based on real local statistics, because the Environmental Protection Agency established that the national average standards were no longer adequate for our state.
Let’s be clear. Even though the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, enforcement of pollution levels and waterway cleanup decisions for more than 40 years have been based on weak, outdated standards. For the last 40 years, we have not had water quality standards that adequately protected Washington residents.
And if the Department of Ecology writes the draft rule they want, we still won’t.
The EPA, which has the power to veto a state rule and impose standards based on what is needed to protect the people of our state, has already done the math for Washington. Their proposal sets good limits on most pollutants—the minimum required for clean water and healthy communities. Their rule is supported by tribes, fishermen, restaurant owners, and the conservation community. But Ecology, which already tried and failed with their first draft after being heavily lobbied by industry, wants control of the rule, and in October they announced they will attempt yet another round.
Based on the state’s announcement there will be plenty to criticize in their forthcoming proposal, but the most unacceptable piece is that they do not intend to change the standards for toxic PCBs and mercury in our waterways.
PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are known to cause cancer, reproductive problems, and other serious health problems. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that causes neurological damage and interferes with brain development in fetuses and children. They are the two pollutants in Washington that most often cause fish consumption advisories, when the state warns consumers not to eat fish from a particular area because the contamination is too serious. Despite all we know about their toxicity, PCBs and mercury are still present in many waste streams, manufacturing processes, and industrial operations. PCBs were banned in the late 70s, but persist in many common products and can be created inadvertently in chemical reactions. EPA’s database on facilities in Washington with wastewater discharge permits—which set allowable levels of pollution in the wastewater that leaves their operation—reveals that facilities statewide are still discharging these toxics to our waters.
There is no excuse for allowing current levels of these toxic chemicals to persist. We know, without a doubt, that those levels won’t protect public health, and that protection is the primary purpose of the state water quality standards and the Clean Water Act.
Ecology is under pressure from industry and businesses afraid of the price tag associated with treating their wastewater to higher standards. But nowhere in the Clean Water Act does it say that safe levels of pollution are determined by the financial or technological limitations of industry. By setting strong standards now, we can generate demand for better, more efficient treatment technologies and make best practices and source control a priority.
Setting good, high standards won’t immediately make our waterways clean. But it will go a long, long way towards enabling the necessary work of cleaning up and protecting our waterways. If the state fails to even try, what does that say about the future of our health and our environment?