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EPA Issues Stricter Water Quality Rule For Washington State, Ending Years Of Debate

Elaine Thompson, File
AP Photo
A native fisherman displays a salmon he pulled from his net on the Duwamish River in Seattle.

The Environmental Protection Agency has issued a final rule on the amount of toxic chemicals allowed in Washington state’s rivers and bays under the Clean Water Act. The standard is sometimes called the “fish consumption rule” because it is based in part on the amount of fish people consume. The water must be clean enough to safely eat fish caught there.

The new rule should put an end to years of controversy related to Washington’s long outdated water-quality rule, which has been known to be inadequate. It now assumes a fish consumption rate of 175 grams of fish, or about a serving per day, matching Oregon’s standard. And it keeps the cancer risk rate at one in a million.

“I think the end result is an improvement for water quality and for human health,” said Janette Brimmer, a staff attorney with Earthjustice. She represented a coalition of environmental groups and fishermen who sued the federal government in March, demanding enforcement of the Clean Water Act.  

She says the rule EPA has issued is a hybrid that takes the strictest aspects of proposed standards from the state Department of Ecology.

“But EPA kind of set a new bottom line that is more protective for a lot of standards where the state’s suggestion was much weaker than what EPA thought it should be,” Brimmer said.  

For example, the federal rule sets stricter limits on arsenic, mercury and PcBs, three of the most prevalent toxic pollutants in Washington waters. Specifically, EPA approved 45 of the pollution standards the Washington Department of Ecology adopted earlier this year and finalized updates to 144 additional federal standards.

In a statement, Ecology Director Maia Bellon said her agency is disappointed their approach was not accepted in its entirety.  

"We worked hard to craft new water quality standards that were balanced and made real progress – improving environmental protection and human health while helping businesses and local governments comply," Bellon said.

While the EPA was stricter than the state in some regards, Bellon said enforcement of the rule is largely along the lines proposed by the state and will allow gradual compliance through permitting and regular check-ins. 

“It appears that EPA largely approved the implementation tools that we developed. These are pivotal to ensure that dischargers can stay in compliance while making real progress toward updated standards," she said. 

The new standards will take effect 30 days after publication of the rule in the Federal Register, which is expected in one to two weeks.


Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to