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Federal Judge Rules EPA Must Protect People from Dangerously Weak Water Pollution Standards

Victory: EPA can no longer delay actions on toxins in water that harm human health
Grilled salmon.

An accurate fish consumption rate is important to public health because it is used to set water pollution standards.

iStockphoto
August 3, 2016
Seattle, WA —

Today, a federal judge imposed a tight deadline on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to finalize new anti-pollution water quality rules aimed at protecting public health. The rules, often called fish consumption rules, must ensure that fish caught and eaten from Washington waters are safe for the most vulnerable and exposed populations.

Map of Washington State.
At issue is how much fish people eat in Washington and consequently how much toxic pollution they consume.

U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Rothstein found EPA in violation of the Clean Water Act for failing to meet deadlines aimed at protecting human health in Washington from water pollution.

“The judge wholeheartedly agreed we need safer water laws NOW and that EPA has been derelict in finalizing protective standards,” said Janette Brimmer, an attorney with Earthjustice. “The State and EPA fiddled for years while deadline after deadline passed, but finally the courts and the Clean Water Act are calling the tune. Now it is up to EPA to act quickly and reject the rule the State proposed this week as wholly inadequate and merely a repeat of a proposal already found wholly lacking.”

Earthjustice, a national nonprofit environmental law firm, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Seattle on behalf of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, Spokane Riverkeeper, North Sound Baykeeper, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, and Institute for Fisheries Resources, seeking to compel quick action against EPA’s admitted failure to comply with the Clean Water Act. Additional delay will simply cause increasing harm.

“The judge agreed—EPA sat on its hands for far too long,” said Chris Wilke, Executive Director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. “We need quick action to ensure clean, healthy waters for all communities. Our food and water must be safe and free of toxic chemicals that cause harm to our health. That includes rejection of the Ecology rule that leaves unaddressed the most prevalent and dangerous pollutants—PCBs, mercury, and arsenic.”

For more than a decade, the Washington State Department of Ecology has failed to update water pollution standards. At issue is how much fish people eat in Washington and consequently how much toxic pollution they consume.

Until two days ago, the state standards grossly underestimated how much fish people eat—which led to under-protective water quality standards for many toxic pollutants, including poisons such as PCBs, mercury, and arsenic. While the State has now increased the fish consumption rate to a more realistic and protective level, it is still well below what Tribes consume, leaving them at risk.

Last year, EPA officially determined that Washington’s water quality standards were  inadequate and issued its own proposed rules to replace the weak standards. The proposed EPA rules must still be finalized. The State’s recent announcement contains the same flaws that EPA roundly criticized last spring as wholly inadequate and not compliant with the Clean Water Act.

“Our fishing families rely on our waters being clean and our seafood healthy. The court agreed with what we have being saying for years—the state and EPA’s inaction gave a pass to polluters and allowed too much toxic water pollution,” said Glen Spain, Northwest Regional Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA). “This hurts the livelihoods of fish-dependent families, communities, and industries.”

“We applaud the ruling. The judge agreed it is long past time for EPA to do what federal law has requires,” said Lee First of North Sound Baykeeper.

“Perhaps now we can have a heated race to a proper standard, instead of foot-dragging, to solve the pressing problem of toxic contaminants flowing into our waterways,” said Jerry White of Spokane Riverkeeper. “We need protective standards to ensure our waters are clean and healthful for generations to come.”

Read the court document.

Contacts

Janette Brimmer, Earthjustice, (206) 343-7340, ext. 1029

Chris Wilke, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, (206) 297-7002

Jerry White, Spokane Riverkeeper, (509) 464-7614 or (509) 475-1228 (cell)

Lee First, North Sound Baykeeper, (360) 733-8307

Glen Spain, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, (541) 689-2000