The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it would return to state water quality standards developed by the agency in 2016, intended to protect people from toxic pollution — especially those who rely on seafood from Puget Sound. Clean water advocates including RE Sources heralded the EPA’s final rule, which reverses the Trump administration’s gutting of Washington state’s clean water protections in 2019.
A coalition of conservation and commercial fishing organizations, in cooperation with regional Tribes who have been leading this fight for stronger protections, applaud the EPA’s return to science-based decision-making. The decision reinstates protective water quality standards and will lead to less toxic pollution for Washington’s water bodies, fish, and orcas. But advocates warned that more is needed to support public health.
Advocates speak up for safer fish consumption standards
“Many people who would’ve been affected by the Trump EPA’s anti-science agenda are Tribal members, speak languages other than English, or live near industry. These communities already bear a disproportionate burden from pollution,” said Eleanor Hines, lead scientist and North Sound Baykeeper at RE Sources. “We have rules like this backed by years of science to make sure health is a priority over profit and politics.”
The EPA’s final rule will undo an industry-led attack on Washington’s water quality standards, implemented under the Trump administration, which allowed 25 times more PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) to pollute our shared waterways than will now be allowed. The well-documented, serious human health risks of PCBs impact food safety for communities that rely on fish and shellfish for subsistence, ceremonial and commercial fisheries. In June 2020, affected Tribes, environmental groups and fishing organizations sued the EPA for dismantling laws that protect Washington’s clean water and public health.
“We have rules like this backed by years of science to make sure health is a priority over profit and politics.” – Eleanor Hines, North Sound Baykeeper at RE Sources
There are over 70 pollutants included under this rule, many of which we encounter in Whatcom and Skagit counties. Unfortunately, many restrictions are already necessary for how much fish and shellfish people should consume from local waters, and had the EPA kept the Trump administration rollbacks, even more restrictions on seafood consumption would have been needed.
“This announcement is a win for everyone that relies on locally-caught fish and shellfish,” said Lauren Goldberg, executive director for Columbia Riverkeeper. “People rely on the Columbia River and water bodies across Washington state as a healthy source of fish, but current laws allow polluters to get away with releasing unacceptable levels of toxic pollution.”
“This is an important step toward protecting the public’s right to safe and healthy seafood, which our industry works hard to deliver to America’s tables,” commented Glen Spain, NW Regional Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), the West Coast’s largest commercial fishing family trade association and a co-Plaintiff in the lawsuit. “Our industry fought back against the prior administration’s efforts to protect polluters at the expense of consumers and we welcome the EPA’s decision to finalize this rule. There is no ‘right to pollute’ the public’s food supply.”
“The Trump administration’s politically-motivated decision to gut Washington’s water quality standards ignored the science and flouted the law. The EPA’s decision to reinstate the more protective 2016 rule is a move in the right direction, but the EPA can still do more to ensure critical human health protections and the wellbeing of all Washington communities,” said Marisa Ordonia, attorney for Earthjustice, which is representing a coalition of organizations.
“This is welcome news for the Spokane River which is highly polluted with PCBs and PBDEs,” said Jerry White, Executive Director of Spokane Riverkeeper. “Returning to science-based standards moves us closer to eliminating water pollution, and ensures that communities will one day be safe in eating fish from their Spokane River.”
In June 2020, the Makah Tribe, Columbia Riverkeeper, Puget Soundkeeper, RE Sources, Spokane Riverkeeper, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, and the Institute for Fisheries Resources, represented by Earthjustice, sued the Trump administration’s EPA for issuing a final rule withdrawing Washington state’s 2016 human health criteria and imposing significantly less protective water quality standards.
EPA’s 2019 decision was fueled by an industry petition designed to take advantage of the agency’s political climate to secure less protective standards than standards approved by EPA in 2016. Even Washington state, which previously tried to defend its own, less stringent standards, opposed EPA’s decision to weaken the 2016 standards.
Under a July 6, 2021, stipulation, the court approved the parties’ collective request to put the 2020 lawsuit on hold during EPA’s voluntary reconsideration and rulemaking process. EPA’s final rule concludes that process.
You can find the EPA’s press release on this week’s decision here.