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Trump EPA Targets Washington State Clean Water Standards

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency memo reveals plan to return to weaker standards
Salmon filet

The weaker, unprotective standards favored by EPA will not protect tribes and other consumers of fish caught in Washington’s waters.

HLPhoto / Shutterstock
April 11, 2019
Seattle, WA —

A coalition of environmental and fishing organizations denounce the Trump administration’s latest effort to dismantle laws that protect clean water and public health. Without giving notice to Tribes, water quality advocates, citizens, or fishing families, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced plans to revoke its own 2016 rule that ensures protective standards for Washington’s citizens. If finalized, the proposed rule would pave the way for polluters to dump greatly increased amounts of toxic pollution into state waters, threatening communities, salmon, and orca whales that rely on clean water to thrive.

The EPA memo, dated March 20, 2019, comes without formal announcement and was only discovered on April 9, 2019, when a Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission staff member unexpectedly discovered it. The memo indicates a return to much weaker, unprotective standards that will not protect tribes and other consumers of fish caught in Washington’s waters. EPA now contends that the memo and request for comments on the proposed reversal were released in error, and that no decisions have been made. But EPA’s intentions are clear — it is again putting polluting industries above human health.

“A major purpose of the Clean Water Act is to protect our communities from toxic pollution,” said Puget Soundkeeper Chris Wilke. “This shameful and reckless proposal puts us all at risk, and is a betrayal of the public trust and responsibility that the EPA has to protect clean water and public health.”

“People rely on clean water and otherwise healthy, locally-caught fish on the Columbia River and other rivers throughout Washington state,” stated Lauren Goldberg, legal and program director for Columbia Riverkeeper. “We’re calling on Governor Inslee to stand up to the Trump administration’s blatant disregard of sound science and protect people from serious threats from toxic pollution.”

“The Clean Water Act requires states and the EPA to protect water quality so that people are not exposed to toxics when drinking water, eating fish, or recreating in and around our water resources,” noted Janette Brimmer of Earthjustice. “Today’s proposal by the Trump administration puts the health of the people of this state at risk by ignoring all of the important scientific work done by the EPA in developing these standards.”

“Allowing polluters to put more poisons in our rivers and expose more people to toxic health hazards is a terrible idea all around,” commented Glen Spain, Northwest Regional Director with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA). “No one, and no corporation, should be given free rein to pollute the nation’s food supply, as these proposed rollback rules would in effect allow. The Trump administration’s economic argument is bunk — the State of Oregon also uses the 175 grams per day fish consumption standard, and Oregon’s economy is doing just fine.”

“The Spokane River is one of the most polluted rivers in Washington State for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs),” said Jerry White, Jr., Spokane Riverkeeper .“For us, this rescission effort represents a profound policy failure on the part of the EPA. Rescinding the water quality standards under industry pressure not only destroys the intent of the Clean Water Act, but it damages a process intended to clean up the Spokane River and all of Washington State’s waterways.”

The EPA’s current back-sliding on water quality standards is the Trump administration’s latest in a long string of attacks on the Clean Water Act and other environmental protections. With this move, the administration is openly siding with industrial polluters who have fought against scientifically-supported needs for stronger anti-pollution standards in Washington. The EPA’s proposed new rule would gut Washington State’s water quality standards, dangerously increasing the already high amounts of carcinogenic PCBs and other toxic chemicals discharged into our waters.

Background

Water quality standards set levels of cleanliness for our waters and are a critical tool for reducing pollution and protecting public health. Before 2016, Washington’s standards were based on 40 year-old-data, bore the weakest fish consumption standards in the country, and did not meet the mandate of the Clean Water Act to ensure that all waters are drinkable, fishable, and swimmable.

In November 2016, after years of research, engagement from tribal nations, public comment, and after being compelled by court order, the EPA finalized a set of water quality standards that were deemed protective of all Washington residents for multiple toxics that accumulate in fish tissue. These toxics include mercury, arsenic, PCBs, lead, and various industrial chemicals, many of which are known carcinogens. The standards are based on exposure of people to toxic chemicals through consumption of locally-caught fish, and include an assumed fish consumption rate of 175 grams per day and a cancer risk rate of one in 1,000,000.

In 2017, groups representing the pulp and paper industry, manufacturers, business, and the Washington Farm Bureau filed a petition with the Trump administration to rescind the current protective standards.

In Washington, harvesting and eating fish, including for subsistence by tribes and other groups, is a “designated use” of our waters that must be protected by standards under the Clean Water Act. Washington State’s history, culture, and character are deeply connected to salmon and salmon fishing, resident fisheries, and shellfish harvest. Data shows that tribal members, Asian/Pacific Islanders and recreational fishers in Washington eat a significantly higher amount of fish and shellfish than other populations. Commercial fishing families also consume higher than the assumed 175 grams per day average amounts of seafood.

As further evidence of risk, the Washington Department of Health already cautions people against eating more than two meals per month of resident Puget Sound Chinook salmon and affirms that PCBs are the number-one reason why fish consumption advisories are issued in waterways all around Washington.

Toxic chemicals are a major threat to Washington’s waters. Though banned in 1979, PCBs remain prevalent in our fish, waters and sediment. Scientific studies also confirm that PCBs bio-accumulate up the food chain, and are harmful to Chinook salmon which serve as the primary food source for our endangered Southern Resident Orca Whales.

In an ironic twist, on March 20, 2019, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler spoke of global water issues ahead of the U.N.-sanctioned World Water Day. In an interview, he told CBS News: “Right now, up to 2.5 billion people around the world lack access to safe drinking water, and, as a result, proper sanitation. This fact leads to anywhere from one to three million deaths every year.”

Waterkeepers Washington is a statewide coalition of clean water groups committed to protecting and restoring Washington’s water resources. Represented by Earthjustice, members include Puget Soundkeeper, Columbia Riverkeeper, North Sound Baykeeper, and Spokane Riverkeeper. Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the Institute for Fisheries Resources, both commercial fishing industry organizations, are also part of the coalition opposed to the proposed backsliding of clean water protections.

Learn more about the state’s toxic fish rules and previous press releases tracking this issue.

Contacts

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

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

Lauren Goldberg, Columbia Riverkeeper, (541) 965-0985

Jerry White, Jr., Spokane Riverkeeper, (509) 835-5211, ext. 1494

Eleanor Hines, Northsound Baykeeper, (360) 733-8307, ext. 213

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

Overruling Trump.