The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday said it plans to come up with updated water quality standards for Washington partly tied to how much fish people eat — in case the state doesn't do it by next year.
The federal process will run parallel to the state's own, which is currently underway, and ensures the EPA can propose a rule in a timely manner should it be necessary, EPA regional administrator Dennis McLerran wrote in a letter to Department of Ecology head Maia Bellon.
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"We still hope that Washington will deliver us a water quality standards package that is approvable," McLerran said in an interview Thursday. "It's our preference to have states do their own, but again they need to be done timely."
Under federal law, rivers and other water bodies must be clean enough so people can safely eat fish from those waters.
The announcement puts renewed pressure on the state, which began working on a contentious rule two years ago and has missed its own deadlines. McLerran told state officials in April that the EPA would step in if the state didn't finalize a rule by the end of 2014.
In July, Gov. Jay Inslee proposed a rule that dramatically raises the fish consumption rate to 175 grams a day to protect people who eat about a serving of fish a day. The current standard assumes people only eat about 6.5 grams of fish a day, or roughly one fillet a month.
"This keeps the pressure on us to deliver, and we're on track to do just that," Ecology Director Maia Bellon said in a statement Thursday.
The state's draft rule, expected in January, is tied to legislation Inslee plans to propose in 2015 to reduce toxic chemicals from everyday sources.
Bellon said the governor's complete package related to water and toxins will provide better protection than "a stand-alone rule written by EPA."
Tribes and others have criticized the proposal as not protective enough. Meanwhile, businesses have worried that rules that are too strict will hurt economic development.
Inslee's plan also makes changes to the cancer risk rate, one of many factors use in a complicated formula to determine how clean waters should be. McLerran said the EPA has some concerns and the state needs to justify the change in that risk rate.
The EPA is expected to have a federal proposal by August, at the earliest, giving the state some time. The agency says it would halt its own process if the state submits a final rule to the agency, McLerran said.
"It's been a long time coming," said Russ Hepfer, who is vice chair of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. "I really hope the state steps up. It's important not only for us tribal people, but for everybody who eats fish around here."
The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, which represents 20 western Washington tribes, has criticized the draft rule and had asked the EPA to intervene.