In what industry officials are calling good news for local pulp and paper mills, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed a proposal Tuesday to roll back “unattainable” water quality standards.

Also known as the fish consumption rule, Washington’s clean water rule is intended to protect the health of people and fish and to manage pollution caused by industries and municipalities. The State Department of Ecology adopted the standards in 2016 after a four-year public process. However, the EPA disapproved of 143 standards and imposed stricter rules in their place.

But in May, EPA reversed its disapproval of Ecology’s original standards. And on Tuesday the agency announced plans to start a public process to remove its own health and safety criteria from the state’s water rule.

A coalition of employer trade groups that petitioned the EPA to overturn its strict criteria applauded the EPA’s proposal, noting that less stringent rules will be less burdensome on industry.

“Under the EPA rule, which was completely ... unattainable, there was great uncertainty on whether or not you could get your permit renewed,” said Chris McCabe, executive director of Northwest Pulp and Paper Association. “If everybody’s permits are in question, and nobody is able to meet the standards that are there … it creates a huge system of regulatory uncertainty and litigation that (adds to) the competitive challenges pulp and paper mills are facing right now.”

McCabe added that the state’s standards and the federal standards were “both very, very highly protective ... but the EPA standards went way too far,” McCabe said.

For example, McCabe said for polychlorinated biphenyls — oily or waxy man-made chemicals that are considered likely carcinogens — the state rule allowed “one drop in 118 Olympic-sized swimming pools,” whereas the federal rule was closer to “one drop in 2,578 Olympic-sized pools.”

“There is no wastewater technology, existing or foreseeable that could meet that quality,” McCabe said.

His association joined a coalition of other employer trade groups in petitioning the EPA in 2017 to fully accept the Washington standards and repeal the federally imposed rules.

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The petition swayed the EPA to reconsider its decision, but, surprisingly, the reversal is frustrating Ecology officials.

“The standards proposed two years ago by Washington State were protective and our preferred approach, but we chose not to challenge EPA’s stricter standards. I am writing to clearly state that I oppose changing course now, more than a year and a half after the current standards took effect,” Ecology Director Maia D. Bellon said in an August 2018 letter to EPA. “What Washington State’s communities and businesses need the most right now is predictability, certainty and flexibility to meet clean water requirements.”

Ecology spokeswoman Colleen Keltz said changing the water quality rules now would be “far more disruptive” than people and industry officials may think. It would open the door for third-party lawsuits and “stunt” forward progress in our state, she said.

“Making a change is not as simple as flipping a light switch. … Before we had balance between communities, tribes, businesses, local government … and we think if EPA continues this action, it will disrupt that balance,” Keltz told The Daily News on Thursday.

Moreover, Ecology thinks the EPA’s reversal qualifies as an illegal action, Keltz said.

“Under the Clean Water Act, there are only two circumstances where EPA can change the standards,” Keltz said. The state can choose to submit new standards for EPA review, or the federal agency can change its overarching criteria in the Clean Water Act.

But this situation meets neither of those conditions, she said. Ecology filed a lawsuit against the EPA for this reason, but the federal agency has refused to pause its petition-related work.

The EPA will provide a 60-day public comment period regarding their proposal to rescind the federal rules. Two online hearings are scheduled to take place at 4 p.m. August 27 and 9 a.m. August 28. An in-person public hearing has yet to be scheduled, but the EPA website notes that the agency is “working toward establishing” that option.

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