Oregon adopts strictest standards in United States for toxic water pollution

From The Oregonian
By Scott Learn

16 June 2011 – Oregon’s Environmental Quality Commission today adopted the strictest standards for toxic water pollution in the United States.

The new rules, adopted on a 4-1 vote, are designed to protect tribal members and others who eat large amounts of contaminated fish.

Oregon’s current water quality standards are built on an assumption that people eat 17.5 grams of fish a day, about a cracker’s worth and typical of most states. The proposed standard boosts that to 175 grams a day, just shy of an 8-ounce meal.

The change, proposed in January, dramatically tightens Oregon’s human health criteria for a host of pollutants, including mercury, flame retardants, PCBs, dioxins, plasticizers and pesticides.

That could boost cost for industry such as paper mills and for municipal sewage treatment plants, increasing sewer rates.

It could also lower the health risks for those who eat a lot of local fish — an estimated 100,000 Oregonians, including 20,000 children, according to a committee set up to consider the health effects of the new standard.

Tribes have pushed for the change since the 1990s. But industry, sewage treatment plants, farmers and foresters have all raised concerns.

The Department of Environmental Quality, which will implement the new standards, has said waivers will be available for industry and treatment that can’t meet them right away.

DEQ has also assured farmers and foresters — and concerned legislators — that it will continue to allow the departments of agriculture and forestry to take the lead on enforcement of water quality violations for “non-point” pollution sources.

The concessions worry environmental groups, who say the new rules could end up being a paper exercise.

Tribal leaders say they understand it will take time to meet the new standards, but add that they’ll watchdog the variance process and regulation of non-point sources to ensure progress toward cleaner water.