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Now that the governor’s toxics bill is dead, now what do we do? Russ Hepfer explains why we need a strong rule

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Russ Hepfer is the vice-chair of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and sits on the Leadership Council of the Puget Sound Partnership. He explained in a piece published in the Peninsula Daily News why we’ve always need a water quality rule that protects human health, whether or not the governor was able to get a toxics package through the legislature.

We need a strong rule of law and we need to be smart in how it’s implemented to break the stalemate in updating our state’s outdated and weak water quality standards.

State government has wrestled for decades with updating the standards that are supposed to protect us from toxics in our water that end up in the food we eat. The more fish and shellfish we eat, the cleaner the waters must be.

But Washington continues to use the same outdated and inadequate water quality standards developed about 40 years ago. Current water quality standards really don’t adequately protect any of us, the state admits.

That’s because business and industry, led by companies like Boeing, have successfully stalled any progress in updating the standards, claiming it would increase their cost of doing business.

A rule proposed recently by Gov. Jay Inslee would have properly increased our fish consumption rate from an embarrassing nationwide low of 6.5 grams per day (about one bite) to 175 grams per day, the same as Oregon’s. But that improvement would have been canceled out by a tenfold decrease in protection under the current cancer risk rate, from one in one million to one in 100,000.

Further complicating the issue, Inslee tied the rule to a $12 million statewide toxics reduction proposal requiring legislative approval. Legislators promptly stripped the most protective parts of a funding bill (HB 4217) for the program, leaving us all pretty much where we started: Unprotected and still waiting.

That’s too bad, because a toxics reduction program is a good idea. But to make it truly meaningful, it must be anchored by a strong rule of law.

Cities were one of the groups that Boeing and others said would feel the pinch of new water quality standards. They claimed higher standards would make water and sewer bills skyrocket.

But in a letter to Inslee, Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville wrote: “We believe in setting the bar high, and then establishing realistic and affordable milestones to achieve our goals. Clean water and fish that are safe to eat cannot be accomplished over night, but that does not mean that we should settle for dirtier water and unsafe fish.”

The treaty tribes and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have been clear from the start about what we want to see in updated state water quality standards: A fish consumption rate of 175 grams per day and a cancer risk rate of one in a million. Anything else is unacceptable.

The 175 grams per day fish consumption rate represents a huge compromise by the treaty tribes, whose members routinely eat far more, as do Asian and Pacific Islanders and others, including local anglers who like to eat what they catch. When those who eat the most fish and shellfish are protected, so is everyone else.

EPA has been keeping a close eye on our state’s lack of progress in updating water quality standards. The agency said it will set a strong water quality rule this summer if the state is unable or unwilling.

There’s still time for Gov. Inslee to do the right thing and write a strong rule of law. He doesn’t need legislative approval for that.

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