The river that runs through the heart of our city has sustained human lives and cultures for thousands of years. It has also sustained tremendous losses, from water quality to wildlife, in recent decades due to toxic chemical pollution, damming and lead contamination. Many of its fish are now unsafe for human consumption – a loss felt most deeply by tribal communities in this region.
When the Environmental Protection Agency issued a new, safer water quality standard for toxic pollution in 2016 – after prolonged resistance from regional industries – we had high hopes that real progress was finally possible in achieving healthy water quality for fish and for people who consume those fish. At last, Washington had a standard that begins to address one of the most dangerous pollutants in our river: polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which accumulate in fish and have been shown to impact health, including causing cancer. But just weeks after the EPA’s new water quality standards were issued, a number of local industrial and municipal groups, from the Farm Bureau to Northwest Pulp & Paper Association to Greater Spokane Incorporated, petitioned the EPA to roll those standards back.
In an unprecedented move, the EPA has indicated that it will consider doing just that.
This is alarming for two reasons. Our state would revert to having toxic water quality standards that ignore human health. The public health risks and costs are very real. Second, if the EPA walks back these standards simply at the demand of industry, this signals that industry – not science, not law, not the American public – makes the rules. It puts dischargers in charge of determining the levels of pollution they deem acceptable to them. What we are seeing now has the potential to damage both our water quality in Spokane and the integrity of the law in our nation for decades to come.
And all of this has taken place largely without the public’s knowledge or consent. Local industry efforts have been quietly abetted by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who earlier this year attempted to completely defund the EPA’s ability to implement federal law. McMorris Rodgers, again prompted by local industrial groups, has also specifically asked the Washington Department of Ecology to stall the reissue of discharge permits holding dischargers accountable for the toxins they dump into the river. These permits are already years out of date, and do not reflect the current standards for toxins in our water. They lack limits for PCBs and are past their five-year renewal date. Rep. McMorris Rodgers has no authority to ask for delays or exceptions. Again, the question is whether we want our public agencies like EPA and Ecology accountable to us and to federal law, or to powerful industry lobbyists.
Taken together with the stalled permitting process, this is a prolonged and unmistakable attempt on the part of industry to permanently weaken our water’s health and would perpetuate a deep history of injustice against communities who catch and eat Washington’s fish.
The Spokane Riverkeeper stands against this blatant attack on the Clean Water Act, this attack on clean water across the state of Washington, and this prioritization of economic gain over public health and the river we cherish. We are asking the EPA not to reconsider or rescind its 2016 water quality standard for toxic pollution in Washington state’s waters. We are asking Ecology to issue legal permits that reflect updated standards for PCBs and other toxins found in discharges to our river and the state’s waters. We are also asking for an open and public process in the development of these discharge permits. The public deserves a voice in the process of determining how much pollution should be legally discharged to our river. Anything less is cheating our river and the public users of this priceless community treasure.
This is a moment that’s bigger than all of us. The quiet alliance of industry and other players appears to believe that no one is watching. But that is not true. Riverkeeper and our supporters will stand firm in demanding that the very highest water quality standards for Washington state stay in place. This is imperative so that the Spokane River remains protected and the fish in your river will one day be safe to eat again.
It’s your river. Let’s protect it.
Spokane Riverkeeper is the only nonprofit dedicated solely to the protection of the Spokane River. We are a chapter member of the International Waterkeeper Alliance and a program of the Center for Justice. www.spokaneriverkeeper.org
OpEd by Jerry White Jr., Spokane Riverkeeper