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EPA updates standards for toxic pollutants in Washington waters

Partnership with Washington will improve water quality and protect fish consumers, regulatory flexibility will help control costs

11/15/2016
Contact Information: 
Mark MacIntyre (macintyre.mark@epa.gov)
206-553-7302

(Seattle – November 15, 2016) Today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced actions to update the limits for toxic pollutants in Washington's surface waters, which will protect water quality and people who eat fish from those waters. 

The Clean Water Act sets clear expectations for the nation’s water quality and calls for establishing health-based standards using the best available science to ensure that all people can safely fish and swim in U.S. waters.  Today’s actions set standards aimed at protecting those who eat salmon and other fish and shellfish from Washington waters. 

Specifically, EPA approved 45 of the pollution standards the Washington Department of Ecology adopted earlier this year and finalized updates to 144 additional federal standards. For a complete list of the pollutants addressed in this action go to: https://www.epa.gov/wqs-tech/water-quality-standards-regulations-washington#fed

As part of today’s actions, EPA also approved Ecology’s revisions to its variance and compliance schedule provisions, which give the state and affected industries and municipalities needed flexibility and time to implement these new standards while making reasonable progress in improving water quality. 

“Washington maintains one of the strongest water programs in the entire nation,” said EPA Regional Administrator Dennis McLerran. “Now, the state will have updated standards on the books and the needed flexibility to make progress meeting these more protective standards over time.”

Surveys of local residents in the Pacific Northwest, including tribes with treaty-protected rights, reflect that Washingtonians eat fish and shellfish at levels much higher than the rate that was previously used to set standards for toxics in Washington’s waters.  EPA and Ecology have been working to establish these new water quality standards based on a far more realistic estimate of the amount of fish Washingtonians eat.

“We applaud the Governor and Ecology’s decision to increase the fish consumption rate recognized in the standards and to retain the state’s protective one-in-a-million cancer risk level. The fish consumption rate and risk level in the standards match those established in Oregon and clearly recognize that greater protection of people who eat larger amounts of fish is appropriate in the Pacific Northwest where fishing is a part of our heritage,” McLerran said.

Most of Washington's human health standards for toxics in surface water haven't been updated since 1992. This new set of standards is based on the latest science about health protection and fish consumption rates.  Today’s actions ensure that water quality standards are now in place at levels that will adequately protect fish consumers in Washington, including tribes with treaty-protected rights, from exposure to toxic pollutants.

The region’s tribes helped both the EPA and the state better understand the particular health risks that tribal members have long faced due to their consumption of large amounts of fish. In establishing a fish consumption rate that better reflects the amount of fish people eat, the Ecology and EPA standards will help to lower health risks from eating fish for all Washingtonians, even those, such as tribal members, who regularly consume large amounts of fish and shellfish. EPA’s final rule incorporates Washington’s 175 grams per day fish consumption rate and a one-in-one million cancer risk level. 

In practice, Ecology and EPA will continue to work together to determine the right level of regulatory flexibility and the feasibility of meeting the new standards when incorporating the new pollution limits into state permits and in other Clean Water Act programs. Flexibility in implementing these new standards will be important as pollutant detection and control technologies are developed.

EPA’s rule and Washington’s approved water quality standards will take effect 30 days after publication of the rule in the Federal Register. The rule was signed today (November 15) and is expected to be published in the Federal Register in one to two weeks.

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For more information about EPA’s action on Washington’s water quality standards: https://www.epa.gov/wqs-tech/water-quality-standards-regulations-washington#fed