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Aug. 8, 2022

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In Our View: Strict limitations on water pollution warranted

The Columbian
Published:

The federal Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed stricter limits on industrial pollution in Washington waterways, working toward clean water for both the present and the future.

In addition to supporting this proposal, Washington residents should view the decision as an example of two underlying issues: The impact of lax environmental regulations, and the work required to unravel the damage created under President Donald Trump.

In 2019 and 2020, the Trump administration altered clean-water regulations for Washington. When Trump took office in 2017, Washington companies were allowed to emit up to 7 picograms a day of polychlorinated biphenyls — PCBs — into local waters. Under Trump, that limit was loosened to 170 picograms a day — nearly 25 times as much — following pushback from industries.

PCBs are human-made chemicals found in plastics, motor oil, oil-based paints and other manufactured products. The Environmental Protection Agency writes that its peer-reviewed assessment “concluded that PCBs are probable human carcinogens. EPA is not alone in its conclusions regarding PCBs. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has declared PCBs to be probably carcinogenic to humans.”

When present in water, PCBs eventually find their way into fish tissue. They can be found in sediment where sturgeon feed, and pollutants can remain in the fat of the long-living fish for years, reports the Oregon Health Authority. According to the Washington State Department of Health, PCBs can lead to possible learning and behavioral problems, and pregnant women can pass pollutants to a fetus.

The health departments of both states recently issued advisories urging people to limit consumption of white sturgeon caught between Bonneville Dam and the mouth of the Columbia River because of the amount of PCBs found in fish. That pollution did not necessarily occur during the Trump years, but it points out the need for vigilance.

The new rules leave plenty of opportunities for sturgeon-loving people to gorge themselves. But the fact that residents must be warned about cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls in fish is cause for concern about how we are treating the environment. It also represents the need for strict regulation of chemical emissions.

The long-lasting danger is represented by the recent listing of Bradford Island near Bonneville Dam as a Superfund site.

Washington long has been a leader on environmental issues, and last month Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill phasing out the use of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — PFAS — which are known as “forever chemicals” because they contaminate air and soil and break down slowly. House Bill 1694 was supported by all Southwest Washington senators, along with Reps. Paul Harris, Monica Stonier and Sharon Wylie.

As Rep. Liz Berry, D-Seattle, who sponsored the legislation, said: “We know that these chemicals threaten the health and safety of every plant, animal, and human that calls this state home. These chemicals should not be in our products.”

As demonstrated by wild swings in PCB regulations for waterways, the effort to protect the environment is an ongoing battle. Business concerns should, indeed, be considered, but the fact that many chemicals will outlive any people or animals who are currently alive must carry significant weight.

Given the danger presented by PCBs, strict limitations are warranted to protect the health of all.

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