The long, sad journey of HB 1472 shows why we need a better water quality rule

As it was passed out of a senate committee last week, HB 1472 — the governor’s much lauded plan to control toxics — suffered a fatal blow. The committee tacked on a provision to the bill that essentially stripped the Department of Ecology’s authority to enforce the bill.

The governor had considered the bill to be a vital portion of his water quality package. A major part of that package was an increase in the cancer risk by 10-fold. This bill to control toxins was supposed to make up for that.

But, even before it reached the Republican controlled Senate, the bill had already been diluted. The state house inserted language sun-setting the bill after only 10 years and requiring the legislature to come up with specific funding for the bill.

And, the fact is that the Environmental Protection Agency won’t even consider the toxics bill at all when they consider the governor’s water quality rule. The review process EPA needs to go through only considers the rule the state is proposing, not legislative activity.

NWIFC chair Lorraine Loomis explains why the tribes were always dubious about the bill:

Further complicating matters, Inslee ties development of the new state water quality standards to a $12 million statewide toxics reduction program that will require legislative approval. That is unlikely given the $2 billion state budget shortfall.

Inslee’s proposal would also require the Legislature to grant the Department of Ecology more authority to regulate toxic chemicals. That is also highly unlikely given the Legislature’s historic reluctance to grant Ecology more power to control chemicals in our environment.

The plan also calls for revising standards for 167 chemicals that the Clean Water Act requires states to monitor in our lakes, rivers and marine waters. But standards for 58 of those – including cancer-causing chemicals like dioxins and PCBs – will stay the same.

At its core, Inslee’s plan does more to preserve the status quo than result in any real improvement to our water quality standards. It is a political solution to a human health issue. The concept of a larger toxics reduction program to tackle pollutants at the source is a good one, but it is not an acceptable substitute for strong water quality rules. We should have both.

Russ Hepfer of the Lower Elwha Tribe even predicted the eventual fate of the bill last summer:

To make up for the loss of protection under the cancer risk rate, Inslee proposes a statewide toxics reduction effort that would require legislative approval and funding. While the idea of a large toxics reduction program is a good one, it is not a substitute for an updated state water quality standards rule that carries the force of law.

No one knows what the Legislature might do, but two things are certain. There will be more delay and more opposition to Inslee’s proposal. Boeing and other opponents to improved water quality rules will likely engage in full-strength lobbying during the session to block any meaningful change, claiming that it will increase their cost of doing business.

The purpose of the bill was to make up for the state failing to write a strong water quality rule, one that wouldn’t rollback cancer protections for all of Washington citizens. But, now that the bill itself is toothless, you have to wonder if the governor should just write a stronger rule.

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