Washington View: Data needed before making decisions about our water

By Don Brunell, Columbian business commentator

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When the Environmental Protection Agency was formed in 1970, our environmental problems were easy to see: factories belched black smoke, leaded gasoline fouled our air, and water and rivers were so polluted that they actually caught fire.

Today, 42 years later, much has been accomplished. Our air is clearer, our rivers are cleaner, and aquatic life is thriving in our streams and estuaries.We have made so much progress that the remaining issues are literally microscopic, measured in parts per trillion. Today, science is the key to establishing if a problem exists and how to respond.However, the Washington Department of Ecology seems to want to move forward without it.Recently, the DOE announced it wants to raise water-quality standards to protect people who eat a lot of fish from local waterways. The agency's thinking is that water-borne contaminants accumulate in fish, so the agency should set standards that protect those who eat the most fish.DOE said it has survey summaries that justify its proposed standard, but the agency does not have the actual data. Dr. Lawrence McCrone, one of the state's leading toxicologists, told DOE that that's not good enough."For data that are to have such far-reaching and costly ramifications, I believe that a true assessment of the scientific defensibility of the surveys can only be concluded if the raw survey data are available for a complete and independent assessment of their conclusions," he said.Other questions remain, as well.What is the scientific information that establishes the nature and scope of any problem? What is the scientific evidence that DOE's proposed standard would achieve its goal? We don't know.Even more troubling, DOE admits that its proposed standard will be impossible to meet for decades because the necessary water treatment technology doesn't exist.Why should you care? Because if you use water, you will pay.Compliance costs are conservatively estimated at more than $1 billion a year, costs that will be paid by private industry and by the local governments that operate Washington's 300 water treatment plants.We will all share those costs, and according to a recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey, we all share the responsibility. The study found trace amounts of chemicals in the Columbia River from personal-care products, household chemicals, and runoff from houses, yards and streets.But despite its catastrophic cost, DOE's proposal won't do anything to reduce many of the contaminants identified in the USGS study.

Site-specific standards

Before we spend a billion dollars a year for 20 or 30 years with no assurance it will accomplish anything, let's see if there's a better way.DOE wants to impose a one-size-fits-all statewide standard, but not all water is the same. We have rushing rivers and quiet lakes, freshwater and saltwater, urban and rural. Shouldn't we have site-specific standards tailored to each situation?And rather than pursue a standard that can't be met for decades, one that will cost untold billions of dollars and potentially jeopardize thousands of jobs, why not look at solutions that will improve water quality more quickly and more cost-effectively?The USGS study calls for more research to effectively address water-quality issues. But DOE is moving quickly to implement the most critical part of its proposal before year's end, a move that will bind future administrations to the policy.Water quality affects us all. We all share responsibility, we will all share in the costs and we will all suffer the consequences if we do this wrong.For those reasons, it is vital that we have good information to make good decisions. We need to do this right to make sure we're doing the right thing.

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state's chamber of commerce. Visit http://www.awb.org.