State, feds splash and clash over Washington’s water quality

  • Thursday, May 16, 2019 9:09am
  • Opinion

President Donald Trump is ready to give Washington the clean water rules its leaders requested.

Did he get an ounce of gratitude when the Environmental Protection Agency delivered the news May 10?

No. He got threatened with a lawsuit.

See, Gov. Jay Inslee no longer embraces the standards submitted to the feds in the summer of 2016, if – conjecture here – he and his Department of Ecology ever truly did.

Those at the EPA found many to be too weak and opted to impose more stringent ones. This all happened in the final days of Democrat Barack Obama’s reign as president. His Republican successor, a man of much different philosophy on this subject, wants to reverse course.

So, state and federal officials may soon be wading back into the morass of regulating the amount of chemical pollutants that can be discharged from businesses and municipal sewage treatment plants into the Puget Sound, Spokane River and other bodies of water without making fish caught and consumed from those waters unsafe for humans to eat.

This situation is a consequence of the 2016 election. It is also a consequence of policy choices made by Inslee, a Democrat, now stumping for president.

It may take months, maybe years, to sort out. Meanwhile, Washington continues to advise people to limit their servings of salmon and other fish due to toxicity concerns.

The EPA’s move is “a monkey wrench” that is “throwing the whole process into disarray,” said Chris Wilke, outgoing executive director of Puget Soundkeeper, an environmental group that pushed the EPA to be tougher on the state back in 2016.

Washington has been trying for most of the last decade to make the first significant update in its water quality standards since 1992.

Inslee opened the door for federal involvement in July 2015 when he scrapped standards crafted by the Department of Ecology after tribal leaders and environmentalists criticized it as too weak. The department spent the next year doing a rewrite and filed it with the EPA on Aug. 1, 2016.

In the meantime, environmentalists impatient with Inslee sued the federal agency to force it to draw up rules rather than wait on the state.

On Nov. 15, 2016, a court-imposed deadline for EPA action — and coincidentally a week after Trump’s election victory — the agency approved parts of the rewritten state plan and rejected other parts. Federal officials chose to adopt tougher rules for dozens of chemicals.

Ecology Secretary Maia Bellon said then she was disappointed the state’s approach wasn’t accepted in its entirety.

Environmentalists and tribal leaders applauded. They preferred the EPA approach. It had more stringent limits on mercury and PCBs considered among the most-serious threats for getting into the food chain and affecting human health.

“The purpose of this rule is about protecting human health,” Wilke said at the time. “The rule today will increase protection for fish consumers.”

In February 2017, an alliance of farmers, paper mill operators and business groups petitioned the EPA to reconsider its decision. Alliance members could live with standards drawn up by the ecology department but not those from EPA, which they insisted would add billions of dollars in new costs without benefits.

Some of the federal standards are “outright unattainable. We can’t find the technology to meet them,” said Chris McCabe, executive director of the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association.

EPA leaders spent the next 27 months in the replay booth, emerging May 10 to declare they got most of it wrong and now consider the state’s 2016 standards based on sound science and protective of humans.

Regional Administrator Chris Hladick said in a letter to state officials the EPA has the “inherent authority” to reverse its own decisions. By doing so, the Department of Ecology will be rightfully in charge of setting water quality rules for the state.

The news drew cheers from petitioners and jeers from tribal leaders and environmentalists.

Bellon and Attorney General Bob Ferguson sent separate letters to top EPA officials insisting no legal mechanism exists for reconsideration nor is there a legal basis to revise or repeal the rules. Ferguson’s Trump Squad is readying its legal armament.

“I am prepared to defend Washington state and our residents against overreach by EPA,” Ferguson wrote. “As you are likely aware, my office has filed 10 lawsuits against EPA since January 2017. We are 5-0 in these cases.”

Trump’s EPA is entering uncharted waters. This reconsideration process will take time, longer if there are lawsuits.

And if Trump doesn’t win reelection, a Democratic president might be persuaded to not make any changes after all.

That would merit a pound of thanks from Inslee and Bellon.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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