Conversations on Washington's Future
Clean Water, Healthy Fish and a Sound Economy
Message from the Director
Ted Sturdevant, Ecology Director
The first draft of this message was written before I knew that
I would soon be leaving my current position as Director of the
Washington State Department of Ecology to take on new
responsibilities under Governor Jay Inslee’s administration. While I
cannot predict what direction this issue might take under the
leadership of the new Ecology director, I offer these comments as a
viable path forward on a complicated and controversial issue. –
Washington is at a crossroads in determining how clean our water needs to be. If we do it right, we will end up with an outcome that will result in cleaner water, healthy fish and a thriving economy.
If we do it wrong, we run the risk of burdening businesses and local governments with added requirements for relatively little human health and environmental return.
The crux of the problem lies in a few simple questions: How much Washington-caught fish do people eat? How clean do our waters need to be to ensure that those fish are safe to eat? How much risk is acceptable? How do we balance the need to protect human and environmental health against the cost and difficulty of achieving cleaner water? How can we make real progress in staunching the flow of toxic contaminants to our waters and ourselves?
Those questions have been at the center of considerable debate in our state for the last year. Why? Because under the federal Clean Water Act, Ecology has an obligation to make sure our lakes and streams are clean enough to safely support the ways people use them. Since one common use is fishing, scientists look at what kinds of toxic chemicals are in the water that fish live in and how much contamination can be released in the water column without making the fish unsafe to eat. This information helps determine how clean Washington waters and sediments need to be.
The issue is coming to a head now because the laws we have in place today are based in part on assumptions about fish consumption that were developed decades ago. They don’t reflect today’s consumer habits and need to be updated.
As we strive to do that, we recognize that more protective water quality measures will have an impact on businesses, cities, counties and ports that must meet certain pollution limits to stay in operation. Understandably, these dischargers have questions of their own. Will they be compelled to invest considerable money in new technologies that may or may not enable them to meet the new requirements and deliver significantly cleaner water? What happens if, after these investments, they still are unable to achieve compliance?
These are fair questions, because Washington’s most pressing pollution problem isn’t discharge coming out of a pipe – we have mature programs and laws in place to address that, and we have made considerable progress in that area. A more daunting environmental threat is the pollution that flows into our lakes and streams from many separate sources. An example is rain falling on thousands of driveways, where it picks up a little oily residue, and transports that contamination over hard pavement and into our waterways. As a state and as a nation, we haven’t yet figured out how to address this “non-point” pollution problem.
Another complexity: where does the responsibility fall in making water cleaner for salmon, which live in – and can pick up toxic contamination from – both Washington waters and the ocean? This question is under considerable focus because salmon are iconic to our state’s culture, important to our economy and a mainstay of many Washingtonian diets.
In both instances, dischargers are asking whether they should be asked to bear the burden of cleaning up pollution they didn’t directly create and over which they have no control.
If we fail to meet our obligation under the Clean Water Act – making sure that water is clean enough for the ways we use it - our state could become vulnerable to lawsuits and subject to a federal plan that isn’t tailored specifically to Washington. A plan that is handed to us, rather than one that is developed by all interests and has broad-based support, is not nearly as likely to be successful over the long term.
To break the impasse, we have to ask a different set of questions: What is the simplest, least expensive and most effective way to address the root causes of toxic pollution? What approaches have high environmental value but are relatively affordable to implement, both in terms of cost and regulatory compliance? Are there new solutions that can give us more – and more sensible – reductions in toxic pollution?
These questions can lead to solutions that benefit all interests and improve our quality of life. Washington has had notable success with this approach. A good example is our efforts to reduce copper contamination in the waters of our state. Copper interferes with some fishes’ sense of smell, making them vulnerable to predators and, in the case of salmon, unable to navigate back to their spawning grounds. We knew that roadway traffic was a contributing factor. When drivers applied their brakes, minute amounts of copper from their brake pads were released and ended up on our roadways. When it rained, that contamination flowed off the pavement and into our streams. This scenario, multiplied thousands of times, was causing significant impact to fish. Here was another situation where dischargers faced strict and costly limits on certain types of contamination, with little or no ability to control it.
The breakthrough came in asking: “What would happen if we got ahead of the problem and stopped the pollution at it source? Could brakes be made from different materials, be just as safe and effective, and not harm fish?”
In response to this challenge, Ecology joined with auto parts manufacturers and distributors, environmental groups, trade associations and others in crafting a plan that phased out copper in brake pads and brake shoes sold in Washington, with a timetable that fit manufacturers’ production schedules. We also developed a certification process, so consumers can tell if the brakes they are buying are environmentally friendly. The result is a new law – the first of its kind in the world – that will eliminate asbestos, mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals in brake pads by 2015 and gradually phase out copper in brake pads within the next ten years.
Our success was driven by a basic concept: reducing pollution at the source is cheaper and faster than cleaning up contamination after the fact. It was made possible by a commitment to openly sharing ideas, valuing each others’ viewpoints and focusing on solutions that were environmentally effective, economically sound and doable from a technical and regulatory standpoint.
My hope is we can apply these same principles in discussions about fish consumption, protecting human health and sediment cleanup. After all, when water is clean from the start, and stays clean, dischargers will find it easier to stay within the limits of their water quality permits and avoid unnecessary costs.