Washington business groups sue EPA, calling water quality standards 'impossible'


A handful of Washington business groups are suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, claiming the water quality standards it adopted last year are impossible to meet.

The 40-page legal complaint centers around polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a legacy pollutant that has entered the Spokane River through wastewater discharged by the city of Spokane and Spokane County, as well as the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District, Kaiser Aluminum and Inland Empire Paper Co., and other runoff sources.

Inland Empire is owned by the Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

Studies have linked PCBs to certain types of cancer, and conservation groups across Washington say the chemicals are absorbed by fish that could make humans sick after eating.

Five plaintiffs filed the lawsuit this week in U.S. District Court: Greater Spokane, Inc., the Northwest Pulp & Paper Association, American Forest & Paper Association, Food Northwest and the Association of Washington Business.

In 2022, the EPA established a stricter water quality standard that had been rolled back during the Trump administration. The plaintiffs say those water quality standards are unrealistic, and when municipalities accrue fines because of the standards, the costs will be passed on to ratepayers.

The water quality standards are "so stringent that compliance cannot even be measured, much less achieved," the lawsuit reads.

"EPA arrived at these impossible standards by populating the variables in the relevant standards-setting formula with values that are unscientific, conflict with EPA guidance, and have no basis in real-world data."

Katelyn Scott, a lawyer for Spokane Riverkeeper, said the 2022 water quality standards are "near and dear" to the environmental nonprofit. Rescinding water quality standards due to industry pressure undermines the purpose of the Clean Water Act, she added.

"We strongly believe that our River should be PCB free," Scott wrote in a statement. "The Spokane River is one of the most polluted rivers in Washington State for PCBs, and rolling back the regulations puts the health and wellbeing of our River and people at risk."

Jake Mayson, director of Public Policy at Greater Spokane Inc., said the 2022 regulations are unattainable for businesses and municipalities in Spokane County.

The water quality standards "cannot be measured by current technology," Mayson said in a phone interview.

"The idea that our municipalities in the region and our public and private entities would be subject to this regulation is really disappointing."

Mayson added that the inevitable fines accrued by towns and cities unable to meet the water quality standards will be passed on directly to ratepayers.

Doug Krapas, environmental manager for Inland Empire Paper Company, called the 2022 water quality standards a "regulatory injustice." He said Inland Empire Paper Company and other groups have repeatedly asked the EPA to reconsider the standards.

"We, in the Spokane region, are very fortunate to have the most advanced water treatment facilities in the nation," Krapas wrote. "These state-of-the-art facilities are capable of removing over 99% of these (inadvertently generated PCBs) to prevent them from entering the environment, but are still not capable of achieving what EPA has deemed to be an 'aspirational' water quality standard. There are currently no technologies, and EPA has not provided any other compliance pathways for attaining this standard, which puts our regional businesses and municipalities in an untenable conundrum."

EPA spokesperson Cathy Milbourn declined to comment, saying the federal agency had nothing to add because the litigation is pending.

Earlier this month, attorneys general from Montana and 10 other states also filed suit against the EPA over the 2023 water quality standards, arguing the federal regulations are unlawful and violate the Clean Water Act.