Officials in Spokane, Wash. are asking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a workaround to an Obama-era rule addressing pollution they claim the city cannot effectively administer.
Spokane Mayor David Condon asked the Trump administration earlier this month for a reprieve from a strict Obama-era rule against polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a type of chlorine that contains carcinogens. The standard is 25 times more restrictive than the state permit process businesses must obey before discharging waste into the Spokane River.
The rule mandates a level that is currently undetectable in laboratory tests, meaning the standard could cost city taxpayers substantially more than the city was expecting to pay for river cleanup, the mayor said.
“This is an area we’re going to have to grapple with, because our whole plan was based on the previous standard,” Condon said during the meeting. He was referring to plans the city had that would construct underground storm-water tanks preventing untreated sewage from leaching into the city’s river.
Lee Forsgren, deputy assistant administrator for water at the EPA, suggested the city can apply for what is called a variance from the new federal standard, Spokane officials told reporters. The variance would allow the city to continue pumping PCBs at “the highest level of water quality achievable.”
The meeting between Condon and the EPA created a panic among environmentalists, many of whom believed the mayor was trying to pressure the agency into disregarding the rule. But a spokesman for the mayor’s office refutes that claim.
“That wasn’t an accurate characterization of the purpose of the meeting,” Coddington told reporters, adding that the mayor and officials discussed the process of seeking a variance and the problems inherent in meeting a standard that modern technology can’t detect, he said.
If the city is concerned about these standards, there’s also an option to agree to what is known as a “non-detect” standard, Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of the nonprofit group Center for Justice, told reporters. The so-called non-detect rule would be less stringent than the EPA rule, but would not allow the rule to be negotiable.
Activists support this position. Jerry White, the Spokane Riverkeeper, said that change would be preferable to the uncertainty of the variance process.
“It could actually create an alternate water quality standard,” White said. “And what we’re saying is, hey, those standards are sacrosanct. How do we meet that really high bar?”
Creating a variance would set a precedent that could spread throughout the state and country, Eichstaedt said. But it would also fall in line with EPA Chief Scott Pruitt’s new stated mission for the agency, namely allowing states and locals determine how best to regulate pollutants in their communities.
Pruitt is trying to refashion the EPA, transitioning the agency from fighting man-made global warming to protecting human health and the environment. Obama tended to prioritize legislation targeting climate change and carbon emission reductions over other regional environmental issues.
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