On August 1, the Washington Department of Ecology finalized its proposal for a new water quality standards rule for Washington State. This update was a long-overdue chance to truly protect Washington communities. But Ecology’s new rule falls far short of that goal.
The new rule tightens limits on many toxic pollutants based on extensive data showing that Washingtonians are eating significantly more fish than the national average. However, the rule also caves to industry pressure, leaving some of the most dangerous chemicals inadequately regulated under the old inferior standard, including PCBs and mercury. And the allowable amount of arsenic actually increases by a multiplier of over five hundred in Ecology’s new rule. These toxic chemicals are known to cause cancer, neurological damage, and other serious health effects.
The rule also opens the door for dangerous loopholes, including decades-long “variances” and “compliance schedules” which allow standards for all pollutants to be violated for years. This trades prompt action for a continuation of the status quo and a continued threat to the health of Washington communities.
Many toxic chemicals are known to persist in the environment and build up in humans who eat fish, as well as apex predators like orcas and birds of prey. More than ninety percent of all fish consumption advisories in Washington, which limit or prohibit consumption of seafood from certain areas due to contamination, are issued for mercury, PCBs or both—precisely the chemicals on which the Ecology rule takes no action. Data also show adverse health effects on orcas, harbor seals, salmon and herring from these toxic pollutants.
“State water quality standards are a critical tool for reducing pollution and protecting public health,” said Puget Soundkeeper and Executive Director Chris Wilke. “Washington State’s water quality standards have been weak and outdated for decades. There is no excuse for continued delay or for a rule that fails so deeply to live up to the Clean Water Act’s goal of fishable, swimmable and drinkable waters.”
Ecology’s rule is pending approval by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Instead of moving forward with this dangerous policy, Puget Soundkeeper, and our allies at Waterkeepers Washington, the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, Earthjustice and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations have publicly called on the US EPA to finalize their draft rule published in fall 2015, which does not contain industry giveaways, loopholes or chemical-specific exemptions.