In a reversal of Trump administration policies, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this week reinstated federal water quality standards for chemicals discharged into Washington state waterways.
The final rule signed Monday would ensure polluters stay within federally established levels of chemicals or conditions in a body of water that are not expected to cause adverse health effects.
Through the years, the water quality standard for polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs — chemicals found in dyes, paints, building materials, coolants and other products — have been a point of contention. Industry leaders, like paper and pulp manufacturers, previously argued there was no technology available to bring wastewater discharge of PCBs to the low levels that were required.
Sometimes these standards are aspirational, said Bill Dunbar, an EPA spokesperson. But that's the story of the Clean Water Act, he said: that the technology will eventually catch up to meet these standards.
In trace amounts, the PCBs are often present in wastewater discharges as well as municipal utility plants that treat stormwater runoff. Once in Puget Sound and freshwater drainage, they accumulate in fish and shellfish, so ingesting this food in large volumes can increase cancer risks.
On Tuesday, EPA officials said the agency is finalizing limits for more than 70 pollutants in Washington waters with respect to the large amounts of fish and shellfish consumed by people in the state. The move will reinstate action by the Obama administration to toughen the water quality standard.
Dennis McLerran, former regional administrator for the EPA, said the goal under the Obama administration was to get some consistency across Pacific Northwest waters. Washington was lagging behind Oregon, despite shared waters and watersheds between the two states.
New science had revealed a wide variety of toxic contaminants in the water at lower levels were harmful to people, McLerran said. It became an environmental justice issue for people who rely on seafood for sustenance.
Tribal leaders, who were disappointed by the Trump administration's EPA decision, have pressed for tighter pollution limits, citing the risks to marine mammal, fish and human health.
"We have relied on marine and freshwater resources for thousands of years and we need those resources to be clean and safe in order to survive and thrive as a people," Patrick DePoe, vice chair of the Makah Tribal Council, said in a news release. "We hope that we can work with the United States and the State of Washington to build on this effort for continued improvement of water quality, and expect our federal and state partners to move forward based on sound science and fulfillment of their trust obligation to Tribes."