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New WA Water Quality Standards: Still in the Pipeline

PHOTO: A side of toxins with that? Groups critical of Washington's proposal to update water-quality standards claim it doesn't do enough to clean up pollution or curtail industrial waste discharge, while health warnings persist for eating fish caught in some locations. Photo credit: JRStock/FeaturePics.com
PHOTO: A side of toxins with that? Groups critical of Washington's proposal to update water-quality standards claim it doesn't do enough to clean up pollution or curtail industrial waste discharge, while health warnings persist for eating fish caught in some locations. Photo credit: JRStock/FeaturePics.com
January 14, 2015

OLYMPIA, Wash. - People can comment starting this week on new state water quality standards that already have been years in the making in Washington. Anyone who eats or catches fish will want to take a look at them.

The new standards are based on higher fish consumption rates that are more realistic than the old standards, but that's the only point all sides seem to agree on. Conservation groups and tribes say the Washington Department of Ecology has made other calculations that, overall, don't add up to cleaner water.

Chris Wilke, executive director of Puget Soundkeeper, said that's a problem when there are health warnings about eating locally caught bass and Chinook from some waterways.

"This is going to result in basically no change to discharge standards," he said. "So, even though the fish consumption rate is going up 27 times, the discharge limits into the environment are not changing at all. This is very concerning to us."

In addition to the proposed standards, Gov. Jay Inslee is asking the Legislature to limit certain types of chemicals used in industry. Wilke thinks it's a good start, but said the state is sidestepping setting tougher standards for water treatment and what can be discharged into waterways.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency also is watching the process and has indicated it could propose federal regulations.

An especially controversial aspect of the new standards is a change in the estimated cancer rate from eating Washington fish; it's jumped from one in 1 million to one in 100,000. That has so concerned Native American tribes that they're opposing the new standards, said Jim Peters, a member of the Squaxin Island Tribal Council and a policy analyst for the Northwest Indian Fish Commission.

"We still have a lot of the cancer toxins out there that are going to be either status quo or, in some cases, even less protective," he said. "And so, we couldn't deal with that. We couldn't go back to our tribal community and say that was acceptable."

In addition to public health reasons, Peters said, the tribal fishing industry has economic reasons to ensure that its catch isn't contaminated.

The Ecology Department is taking public comments on the proposed water quality standards through March 23.

The proposed standards are online here. The governor's proposal is here.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA