Amid coronavirus, Trump EPA guts a WA state clean water rule for safe seafood

The EPA is rescinding the hard-won, science-based 2016 water quality standards that protect people who eat seafood from WA waterways safe from harmful levels of cancer-causing chemicals and heavy metals. | April 22, 2020

Get updates

Media contacts: Eleanor Hines, North Sound Baykeeper, 215-287-0043,
Glen Spain, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), (541) 689-2000
Chris Rilling, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, (206) 319-6153
Lauren Goldberg, Columbia Riverkeeper, (541) 965-0985
Jerry White, Jr. Spokane Riverkeeper, (509) 475-1228

April 21, 2020 (Olympia, Wash.) — A coalition of environmental and fishing organizations denounced the Trump administration’s latest effort to dismantle laws that protect clean water and public health. On April 16, 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revoked its own 2016 rule that ensures protective water standards for people that eat locally-caught fish in Washington state. EPA’s decision allows polluters to dump greatly increased amounts of toxic pollution into state waters, threatening communities, salmon, and orca whales that rely on clean water to thrive. In response, the Columbia Riverkeeper, North Sound Baykeeper, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, and Spokane Riverkeeper the following statements:

An attack on the Clean Water Act is an attack on our communities’ health—during a global pandemic. This shameful and reckless action puts us all at risk, and is a betrayal of the public trust and responsibility that the EPA has to protect clean water and public health,” stated Eleanor Hines, North Sound Baykeeper at RE Sources.

“It feels like we’re living in the Twilight Zone,” stated Chris Rilling, executive director and Puget Soundkeeper at Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. “We’re in the midst of the worst health crisis in a century and the EPA chooses this very moment to eliminate water quality protections for Washingtonians, further jeopardizing the lives of our most vulnerable citizens. This is unacceptable and the EPA should be ashamed. Puget Soundkeeper and our partners will do all we can to reverse this reckless ruling.”

“People rely on clean water and locally-caught fish. The Trump administration’s gift to polluting industries blatantly disregards people’s health and ignores decades of sound science. We are calling on Gov. Inslee and the Washington Dept. of Ecology to use the state’s authority and reinstate laws that protect all Washingtonians,” stated Lauren Goldberg, legal and program director for Columbia Riverkeeper.

“Allowing polluters to put more poisons in our rivers and expose far more people to toxic health
hazards is a terrible idea all around,” stated Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of
the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), a major commercial fishing industry trade group. “No one, and no corporation, should be given free rein to pollute the nation’s food supply, as these rollback rules would allow. The Trump administration’s ‘deregulation’ economics excuse is bunk—the State of Oregon has been using the same, much healthier, 175 grams per day fish consumption standard for years, and Oregon’s economy didn’t experience repercussions.”

“The Spokane River is one of the most polluted rivers in Washington State for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB),” said Jerry White, Jr., executive director of Spokane Riverkeeper. “There are Department of Health PCB advisories for the consumption of most types of fish in the Spokane River. Rescinding the water quality standards under industry pressure represents a profound failure to protect the public. In fact, it calls into question the integrity of the initiatives and efforts that are underway in our river to clean up the PCB pollution.”


The EPA’s current back-sliding on water quality standards is the Trump administration’s latest in a long string of attacks on the Clean Water Act and other environmental protections. With this move, the administration is openly siding with industrial polluters who have fought against scientifically-supported needs for stronger anti-pollution standards in Washington. The EPA’s proposed new rule would gut Washington State’s water quality standards, dangerously
increasing the already high amounts of carcinogenic PCBs and other toxic chemicals discharged into waters like Puget Sound and the Columbia River.

Water quality standards set levels of cleanliness for our waters and are a critical tool for reducing pollution and protecting public health. Before 2016, Washington’s standards were based on 40 year-old-data, bore the weakest fish consumption standards in the country, and did not meet the mandate of the Clean Water Act to ensure that all waters are drinkable, fishable, and swimmable.

In November 2016, after years of research, engagement from tribal nations, public comment, and after being compelled by a court order, the EPA finalized a set of water quality standards that were deemed protective of all  Washington residents. These toxic standards include mercury, arsenic, PCBs, lead, and various industrial chemicals, many of which are known carcinogens. The 2016 standards are based on exposure of people to toxic chemicals through consumption of locally-caught fish, and include an assumed fish consumption rate of 175 grams per day and a cancer risk rate of one in 1,000,000.

In 2017, groups representing the pulp and paper industry, manufacturers, business, and the Washington Farm Bureau filed a petition with the Trump administration EPA to rescind the protective standards adopted by the EPA in 2016.

In Washington, harvesting and eating fish, including for subsistence by tribes and other groups, is a “designated use” of our waters that must be protected by standards under the Clean Water Act. Washington State’s history, culture and character are deeply connected to salmon and salmon fishing, resident fisheries, and shellfish harvest. Tribal members, Asian-Pacific Islanders and recreational fishers in Washington eat a significantly higher amount of fish and shellfish  than other populations. Commercial fishing families also consume higher than the assumed 175 grams per day average amounts of seafood.

Toxic chemicals are a major threat to Washington’s waters. The Washington Department of Health already cautions people against eating more than two meals per month of resident Puget Sound Chinook salmon and affirms that PCBs are the number-one reason why fish consumption advisories are issued in waterways all around Washington. Though banned in 1979, PCBs remain prevalent in our fish, waters and sediment. Scientific studies also confirm that PCBs bioaccumulate up the food chain, and are harmful to Chinook salmon which serve as the primary food source for endangered Southern Resident orcas.

Banner photo: Brett Baunton / Wild Nooksack