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Gov. Inslee Issues Draft Fish Consumption Rule on First Day of Session

With most attention on the first day of the legislative session devoted to Auburn Sen. Pam Roach’s coup in the Senate along with majority Republicans adopting a two-thirds rule on new taxes, Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration issued a long-awaited draft rule on fish consumption.

The fish consumption rule is part of a two-pronged approach to water quality that will accompany a toxics bill that’s still to come. It could mean sweeping impacts for industries, manufacturers and municipalities throughout the state, who would have to come into compliance with more stringent rules on the chemicals they use and the wastewater they treat.

Trade associations like the Association of Washington Businesses and local governments have warned of the costs of technological and equipment upgrades necessary for achieving compliance, and if there’s too many hurdles on the path to meeting the standards. Brandon Houskeeper, a government affairs director with AWB, said the proposal has improved through revisions, but he feared some firms with storm water runoff permits from the Department of Ecology would still face an uphill climb to compliance.

“We still have those reservations,” Houskeeper said. “It was difficult for some permitees, even under the existing rules, to comply. The rule is getting more stringent in every way.”

Environmental groups and Indian tribes have pushed for a tougher approach, arguing the state’s waterways need the clean-up. Randi Abrams-Caras, a lobbyist for the Washington Toxics Coalition, is supporting the governor’s plan for toxics but wasn’t focusing on fish consumption.

She said the toxics bill, which shifts authority to ban certain chemicals from the Legislature to Ecology, takes the right incremental approach, only a few per biennium. Opponents to the legislation contend it’s an example of government overreach to cede that authority to a state agency.

“We think it’s a good start,” Abrams-Caras said. “It’s not especially aggressive in going after chemicals. It only addresses a few a biennium.”

Inslee’s policy staff and the Department of Ecology have attempted to split the difference on fish consumption, and said the rule issued Monday is similar to an earlier draft that came out in September. Sending out the rule on the first day of session is a tone-setting move from the governor as he pursues an aggressive environmental agenda this year.

Oil train regulation, tax breaks for solar energy and electric cars, and cap-and-trade — the centerpiece — will all be brought forth in the Legislature this session. The tandem of fish consumption and toxics reduction present some of the politically trickiest challenges for the business community. Ecology said Monday that the final adoption of the fish consumption rule will depend on what happens with Inslee’s toxics bill.

FISH CONSUMPTION VS. TOXICS REDUCTION

The main difference between the fish consumption rule and the toxics reduction bill is that the former attacks contamination in effluent, either from industrial production or municipal discharge, while the latter seeks to ban chemicals if a safer alternative can be found.

Fish consumption looks to up the amount of fish the state considers safe for human consumption under a regulatory framework that affects a wide swath of businesses and industries in Washington state, from Boeing to pulp and paper mills. Almost 100 chemicals would fall under the program umbrella, and about 70 of them would face stricter standards.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is forcing the state to update its fish consumption rate to bring it in line with the federal Clean Water Act. The fish consumption rate in Washington, which hasn’t been touched since 1992, is at 6.5 grams per day, and the rule released Monday would increase that to 175 grams. The larger amount is used to keep fewer pollutants from entering state waterways, with the logic being that equals cleaner fish. The EPA’s threat is that unless the state acts, it will come up with its own standard. Any rule the state adopts will require an EPA sign-off.

The battle over fish consumption has been brewing in Olympia over the last four years, and first began bubbling publicly during the budget negotiations in 2013, when a study Boeing wanted funded looking at the healthy level of fish consumption threatened to hold up the final budget vote.

The toxics reduction bill the governor wants passed would allow Ecology and the Department of Health to develop a list of 150 “high priority” chemicals by 2018, which would be culled down to 20 that would be subject to chemical action plans. Four from that list would be subject to the plans, which would require manufacturers to say how they’d cut down or eliminate their threats.

Abrams-Caras said the legislation’s proposal to give this authority to Ecology is the right decision, and would lead to scientific appraisals of chemical safety, and what should be outright banned from use in Washington state.

“That’s what we think the governor’s proposal will do,” Abrams-Caras said. “We’ve seen the official draft. It provides some predictability.”

Opponents, on the other hand, fear creating more problems by taking that approach. Todd Myers, environmental director of the Washington Policy Center, has argued that the state’s experience in banning one chemical flame retardant in 2007 should give pause before moving forward with more bans. Myers argues that bans often lead industries to move newer alternatives that have uncertain effects, or potentially risky but still-legal alternatives.

BUSINESS BRING DIFFERENT RESPONSES TO ISSUE

Chris McCabe, executive director of the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association, said his group was still reviewing the rule issued Monday, and if it didn’t vary substantially from the one issued in September he felt it was a good compromise from the Inslee administration.

Chris McCabe, executive director of the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association.

Chris McCabe, executive director of the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association.

“The state seems to have come up with a workable solution moving forward,” said McCabe, who was one of the more vocal opponents of the change in standard early in the process.

McCabe said he was glad to see that Washington didn’t go to the rigor of Oregon’s fish consumption rate, which would require addressing trace levels of chemicals so infinitesimal industries argue they don’t have the technology to do so.

“The part that we said all along was not to repeat Oregon’s mistake,” McCabe said. “They seemed to have achieved the balance that we were looking for. When you increase the stringency of 70 chemicals it’s going to be challenging.”

But Houskeeper, representing a broader contingent of industries, said the standard would still pose challenge for other industries, and work needs to be done to ensure to ease the burden on businesses. Individual businesses will have to consider what the fish consumption rate will mean for them, and provide that analysis during the public vetting process.

The release of the rule, called a CR 102, on Monday, sets up three public hearings in Spokane March 3, Yakima March 4, and Olympia March 13. The toxics reduction bill will be introduced in the legislative process, likely via Inslee’s request.

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AWB Government Affairs Director Brandon Houskeeper

“We still have concerns,” Houskeeper said. “There’s still barriers for businesses on the compliance pathways.

Ecology Director Maia Bellon said in a statement she believed her department had struck the right balance necessary.

“We believe Washington state is in the best position to choose water quality standards that reflect our environmental and economic priorities,” said Bellon. “Our proposal makes significant improvements in protecting Washington residents, but also sets achievable targets for industry and local governments.”