EPA reconsiders Washington state's contentious water rules

Upper portion of the Duwamish River via Wikimedia Commons. Credit: Joe Mabel 

SEATTLE — The Environmental Protection Agency is reconsidering water quality standards it approved for Washington state two years ago, taking up a review requested by industry groups.

In November 2016, the EPA finalized water quality standards for the state tied partly to how much fish people eat. The EPA approved some aspects of the state's plan but decided in many cases to set stricter limits than the state had wanted.

The EPA said at the time that the combination of its own federal rules and parts of the state's plan would protect residents from exposure to toxic pollutants.

In a letter Friday, EPA assistant administrator David Ross told one of the petitioners, Utility Water Act Group, that his agency would reconsider its actions.

"Some issues raised in the petition warrant additional review," EPA spokesman Michael Abboud said in a statement Wednesday.

The standards, sometimes referred to as the fish consumption rule, came after years of contentious debate.

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Native American tribes and environmental groups said tougher rules were needed to reduce water pollution and protect those who eat fish. Businesses such as Boeing and local governments argued that too strict rules could cost billions with little benefit to the environment.

Eight business and trade groups including the Association of Washington Business and the Washington Farm Bureau petitioned for reconsideration in February 2017. They said the EPA usurped the role of the state and imposed rules that will be devastating to local communities and businesses.

Chris McCabe, executive director of the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association, said the current rule is unworkable.

"I hope it's a step in the right direction," he said. "The letter says they are going to reconsider, but it doesn't say exactly what they're going to do. We're hopeful that they'll honor the petition."

Dennis McLerran, who was regional EPA administrator when the agency approved the rules, called the EPA's decision to reconsider unfortunate and said it would create uncertainty.

"It's still unclear whether they'll approve or deny the petition, but the fact that they're reconsidering indicates that they're moving in a direction that's inconsistent with the previous administration," McLaren said. "These were decisions that were based on the best available science and also on our interpretation of (tribal) treaty right obligations."

When the rules were finalized in 2016, state Ecology Director Maia Bellon expressed disappointment that the EPA didn't accept the state's approach in its entirety. In a letter to the EPA Tuesday, she wrote that she opposes changing course.

Bellon said in a letter to the EPA Tuesday that the standards the state proposed were protective and the preferred approach but the state chose not to challenge EPA's stricter standards.

"Your decision to reconsider the current standards only sets us back and is already causing confusion and unpredictability," she wrote Tuesday.

The EPA approved nearly one-quarter of the pollution standards the state adopted and finalized its own updates for the remaining three-quarters.