Water standards must balance human needs

The other Washington is leaning on this state to adopt a water purity standard so absolute that it could siphon hundreds of millions of dollars out of people’s pockets and strangle the creation of new jobs.

We’re a green state and hardly averse to environmental regulation. But even the best of intentions can be pushed to the point of absurdity. Gov. Jay Inslee must find a way to fend off the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ridiculous demands, which may require that municipal and industrial discharges be cleaner than current technology can achieve – perhaps even cleaner than the bodies of water they empty into.

Appetites for fish, oddly enough, are driving this dispute. The more fish people eat, the cleaner the fish must be; the cleaner the fish, the cleaner the water must be.

Washington for years has estimated that its citizens eat about a half-pound of fish a month. Many people do eat more. But the groups pushing for tighter standards want Washington to adopt a spectacularly higher fish consumption estimate.

The argument is that certain populations – Indians, fishermen, some Asians – eat much more fish than the average Washingtonian. To protect them from carcinogens, the water quality standard should reflect their diets.

There’s another calculation involved: The actual risk of cancer posed by particular toxins found in fish. In this case, Washington’s existing standard is exceptionally cautious. One compromise might be to relax the estimated cancer risk somewhat – there’s a lot of room to relax them within the EPA standards – while raising the fish consumption estimate.

That might sound like endorsing cancer. But it could be a matter of moving from extreme precaution to sensible precaution.

In any case, fish and cancer aren’t the only issues here. Cities, counties and industries say that anything like the proposed restrictions would make their costs explode.

Unlike the state or the EPA, they’ve actually commissioned a serious study on the real world effects of the change. The consultant, HDR Engineering, concluded that it might be literally impossible to get toxins down to the infinitesimal levels required.

The mere effort would require immense spending on treatment. The city of Bellingham has estimated that its citizens’ sewer bills could shoot up from $35 a month to $200 or more as a result.

Those who demand extreme environmental policies are sometimes oblivious to the costs they would impose on the people least able to bear them. For many families, even a $100 sewer bill would mean less money to keep the car in repair, less gas to drive to work, less food and clothing for the children. The humane policy isn’t, “Let them eat fish.”

It may well be that people who consume large quantities of seafood in this state do need more protection. If our waters can’t be purified enough, realistically, it would make more sense to provide them with imported, subsidized fish than to impose such costs on the state at large.