The Biden administration took an important step in reversing the Trump administration’s effort to gut Washington state’s clean water protections. On July 6, 2021, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington approved the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposal to reevaluate the Trump administration’s rollback of Washington state water quality standards developed to protect people from toxic pollution.
EPA told the court in its reconsideration proposal that the agency “has substantial concerns that the State HHC [human health criteria water quality standards] approved by the prior administration may not be adequately protective and may not be based on sound science.”
“Tribal members’ health relies on clean water and fish that are safe to eat. Our Treaty guarantees the right to take fish, and EPA’s approval of inadequate water quality standards harms our subsistence, ceremonial, and commercial fisheries,” said Tribal Chairman Timothy J. Greene, Sr. of the Makah Tribe. “We are glad that EPA has acknowledged its devastating mistake and hope they fix it as fast as possible.”
“EPA’s course-correction is a vital step forward, and couldn’t be more timely,” said Sean Dixon, Executive Director at Puget Soundkeeper. “Communities around the state rely on these water quality standards to ensure their fish and shellfish resources can thrive and are safe to eat. When the standard for safety is lowered, real lives — and livelihoods — are put at risk.”
In response to a request from industries, in 2019, the Trump EPA reopened its consideration of Washington’s existing water quality regulations, rejected them over the state’s objections, and imposed significantly less protective regulations. In June 2020, affected Tribes, environmental groups, and fishing organizations sued EPA for dismantling laws that protect Washington’s clean water and public health.
“EPA’s job is to protect people that depend on otherwise healthy, locally-caught fish and shellfish,” said Lauren Goldberg, Legal and Program Director at Columbia Riverkeeper. “We’re looking to the EPA to act swiftly. Fish advisories warning pregnant women and children not to eat the Northwest’s iconic fish are not the answer.”
The court-approved plan and deadlines, developed by EPA and agreed to by those Tribes and organizations that joined the 2020 litigation, could lead to less toxic pollution for Washington waterbodies. Under the agreement, EPA will reevaluate their 2019 actions that allow for more toxic pollution in Puget Sound, the Columbia River, the Spokane River, and waterbodies across Washington state. EPA committed to a two-step pathway to better protections: first, a proposal within nine months that would detail the agency’s plans for setting new standards, and, second, a final action nine months later (or sooner).
“This is a welcome action to return to food health and safety standards that fully protect fish and shellfish consumers and the public,” said Glen Spain, NW Regional Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), the West Coast’s largest organization of commercial fishing families. “This administration’s return to science-based seafood protective standards assures that our fish harvests remain healthy food sources for everyone.”
“EPA’s re-evaluation is good news for the communities of the Central Salish Sea and throughout Washington. The Trump EPA’s suggestion that we need to choose between economic stability and public safety was a false choice. As we have seen most poignantly over the past year, we need both,” said Eleanor Hines, North Sound Baykeeper at RE Sources.
“The Spokane River is one of the most polluted waterbodies in Washington state in terms of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). Most, if not all, fish in our river have health advisories for consumption with many being inedible,” said Jerry White, Jr. of Spokane Riverkeeper. “The Biden administration’s action on this issue is welcomed. Frankly, this should put those in our basin that were a part of the disgraceful pollution-limit rollback on notice that they are on the wrong side of history. The public wants healthy waterways and clean fish to eat.”
In June 2020, the Makah Tribe, Columbia Riverkeeper, Puget Soundkeeper, RE Sources, Spokane Riverkeeper, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, and the Institute for Fisheries Resources, represented by Earthjustice, sued the Trump administration’s EPA for issuing a final rule withdrawing Washington state’s 2016 human health criteria and imposing significantly less protective water quality standards.
EPA’s 2019 decision was fueled by an industry petition designed to take advantage of the agency’s political climate to secure less protective standards than standards approved by EPA in 2016. Even Washington state, which previously tried to defend its own, less stringent standards, opposed EPA’s decision to weaken the 2016 standards.
Under the July 6, 2021, stipulation, the court approved the parties’ collective request to put the 2020 lawsuit on hold during EPA’s voluntary reconsideration and rulemaking process.