- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 30, 2014

SEATTLE (AP) - The state Department of Ecology on Tuesday released a draft rule that updates contentious water quality standards partly tied to how much fish people eat.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, rivers and other water bodies must be clean enough so people can safely eat fish from those waters. The proposal dramatically raises the current fish-consumption rate to 175 grams a day, which would protect people who eat about a serving of fish a day.

The draft rule, expected to be finalized next year, is tied to legislation Gov. Jay Inslee plans to propose in 2015 that would seek to reduce toxic chemicals from everyday sources.

Tribes and conservation groups have criticized the governor’s proposal as not protective enough. Meanwhile, businesses have worried too-strict rules will hurt economic development.

The draft rules released Tuesday provide greater details of the plan Inslee announced in July. It comes nearly two years after the state began an often-heated process of updating the clean-water standards.

“This rule should already be in place,” said Jim Peters, a member of the Squaxin Island Tribal Council. “We’ve had three different times where we had dates set for them to start promulgating their rules. And every time they haven’t been able to meet them.”

The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, which represents 20 western Washington tribes, has criticized the draft rule and has asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to intervene.

“That’s just not acceptable for our tribe, for any tribe in the state or anybody who eats a lot of salmon,” Peters said, noting that the plan would increase the cancer-risk level for some chemicals. “They really don’t understand that impact to our people.”

The EPA has told the state that it is going to have to “start their engines on developing a rule” so they’re not caught “flat-footed,” Kelly Susewind, special assistant to the state’s ecology director, told reporters in a call Tuesday.

Mark MacIntyre, an EPA spokesman in Seattle, declined comment when asked about the EPA’s response to the state’s plan. The EPA ultimately must approve any state rule.

Business such as Boeing and others had worried too-restrictive rules would hurt jobs and economic growth because costly technologies would be required to keep certain levels of toxic chemicals out of state waters.

The agency said Tuesday that its cost-benefit analysis found the rule would not affect existing facilities and that the benefits likely outweigh the costs.

Brandon Houskeeper, with the Association of Washington Business, said he is reserving comment until his group had time to review the draft rule.

The proposal appears to provide plenty of time for businesses to meet the standards. It removes a time limit on compliance schedules. Businesses and municipalities can meet standards over a period of time if they demonstrate progress.

While the Department of Ecology noted that the rules are more protective for 70 percent of 96 chemicals regulated by the Clean Water Act, critics say it ignores other chemicals, including cancer-causing ones such as PCBs and mercury.

“This is backsliding, even if the numeric standards stay the same,” said Chris Wilke, with the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. “They’ve created loopholes.”

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