EPA fish rule

The Washington Farm Bureau and the wood-products industry are seeking to intervene on the side of the Trump administration in a lawsuit filed by Washington over the state's fish-consumption rule.

The Environmental Protection Agency has agreed with the Washington Farm Bureau and other industry groups that the Obama EPA was wrong to reject water-quality standards developed by the state Department of Ecology.

The reversal, explained in a letter Friday from EPA Regional Administrator Chris Hladick to Ecology Director Maia Bellon, means human-health protections proposed by Bellon’s agency in 2016 will have federal approval.

Under EPA’s previous stance, farmers could have faced heavier regulations as the state pursued unattainable water-quality goals, Farm Bureau CEO John Stuhlmiller said Monday.

“This is not a step backward for the environment. This is a step toward more reasonable and sustainable standards,” he said.

While the industry groups are celebrating EPA’s new position, Ecology is not.

Bellon, who in 2016 called the state-developed standards “strong yet reasonable” and said she was disappointed that the Obama EPA rejected them, criticized the Trump EPA for not consulting with the state and tribes before granting a petition filed by the Farm Bureau and seven other groups.

Bellon said in a written statement she was confident her agency could “work with the regulated community” to implement Obama EPA standards.

An Ecology spokeswoman said Monday the agency wasn’t disavowing its earlier work, but was unhappy with the EPA’s unilateral action.

Environmental groups and tribes had asked EPA to uphold its 2016 ruling. Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson issued a joint statement accusing the Trump EPA of dismantling Washington’s water-quality standards.

In a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Ferguson said he was “prepared to defend Washington state and our residents against overreach by EPA.”

“As you are likely aware, my office has filed 10 lawsuits against EPA since January 2017. We are 5-0 in these cases,” Ferguson wrote.

To comply with the federal Clean Water Act, Ecology developed standards for nearly 200 pollutants.

The standards are distilled into the “fish consumption rule.” According to Ecology, people who ate 6 ounces of fish caught in Washington every day for 70 years would increase their chances of getting cancer by one in a million.

The EPA said Ecology’s proposal wasn’t protective enough for 143 pollutants. At the time, the EPA faulted Ecology for not using national standards based on how much of a pollutant a fish accumulates from sediment, prey and water. The EPA also cited tribal treaty rights in its decision.

The Farm Bureau, Northwest Pulp and Paper Association, American Forest and Paper Association, Association of Washington Business, Greater Spokane Inc., Treated Wood Council, Western Wood Preservers Institute and Utility Water Act Group petitioned the EPA to change its decision.

Stuhlmiller said the Farm Bureau was concerned that after exhausting efforts to meet the standards by regulating manufacturers, regulators would turn to farmers. “We saw it coming and said, ‘We’re next,’” he said.

In a document supporting its new position, the Trump EPA said the Obama EPA adopted a “new legal theory” that would require states to harmonize treaty rights with the Clean Water Act. Also, the Obama EPA should not have forced the state to adopt national default standards.

The EPA says it now considers Ecology’s 2016 standards based on sound science and protective of humans.

The EPA says it has the right to reverse its own decisions and that it was returning Ecology to its role as the primary regulator of water quality in Washington.

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