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Study: New Water Quality Standards Would Cost Billions, Produce Little Benefit

Posted December 11th, 2013

‘Fish consumption’ issue could mean $200-a-month sewer bills — business, local-government organizations sound alarm as Ecology seeks standards no one can meet.

By Erik Smith
Washington State Wire

Boise Cascade's Wallula mill: Pulp and paper industry would be sharply affected.

Boise Cascade’s Wallula mill: Pulp and paper industry would be sharply affected.

OLYMPIA, Dec. 10.—$200-a-month sewer bills, anyone? Business and local governments are sounding a new warning about a Department of Ecology plan to impose water-quality standards so tough no one can meet them, releasing a study that points to staggering costs and not much environmental benefit.

Impact would be in the billions of dollars, yet the results still wouldn’t comply with the new state rules, says the report from HDR Engineering. Perhaps more important, the water really wouldn’t be that much cleaner. In fact, if you start totting up the greenhouse-gas emissions the policy would cause and other potential environmental harms, you get the idea the state might be trading one problem for another.

The study, commissioned by the Association of Washington Business, the Association of Washington Cities and the Washington State Association of Counties, calls attention to an issue that brings apocalyptic visions to the statehouse. By the end of 2014, the state Department of Ecology plans to adopt new rules for surface-water discharges that either would be the most stringent in the country, or else would be tied for first with Oregon. The groups say compliance costs would be so enormous the state ought to think twice. Their argument comes with a dollop of self-interest, of course, but it raises an interesting point. The agency can’t challenge the study, because it hasn’t done a cost-benefit analysis of its own. Nor is it likely to.

The three organizations say they hired the Omaha-based firm to do the report precisely because there appears to be so little scientific basis for the new standards. Indeed, regulators have acknowledged during legislative committee hearings that political and legal forces are driving the policy. There is an element of science, to be sure: The new rules are based on complicated calculations of the concentrations of contaminants that may cause harm to human health, and on new estimates of human fish consumption. But what regulators haven’t done is to ask how much good the new rules will do, at what cost. That’s why the study’s conclusions ought to make the state gulp, argues AWB president Don Brunell.

“New businesses are unlikely to locate here given a standard like this,” he says. “And existing businesses won’t invest in technology that doesn’t meet the standards. So they’ll close up shop and move elsewhere. And that means the potential loss of jobs, particularly in rural areas of Washington state that cannot take another massive industry shutdown.”

Right now the process is on autopilot; the Legislature has no say unless it passes a bill giving direction to the Department of Ecology, a tricky prospect given the greenpower in the Democrat-controlled House. But at a time when the state is engaged in a down-to-the-wire effort to convince Boeing to remain in Washington, the cost to industry is no small concern. And then come the sewer bills – an even more universal cost.  They could affect anyone in the state who flushes a toilet.

Starts With Fish

Kelly Susewind, director of the Department of Ecology water-quality program, and agency director Maia Bellon speak with reporters after hearing.

Kelly Susewind, director of the Department of Ecology water-quality program, and agency director Maia Bellon make an appearance at a September Senate hearing.

Eventually Ecology will be required to produce some sort of a cost estimate. Once the agency releases its proposed rule sometime early next year, it must produce a “small business impact statement,” which at least will examine part of the picture. But the issue of potential benefit may never be examined in any official way. A proposal from Boeing last session that would have required a state study of the big-picture issues was spiked when the Inslee Administration threatened a veto. An odd situation indeed – and to understand how it happened a bit of background is probably necessary.

Around the statehouse, the matter is known as the “fish consumption” issue, because it all starts with fish. State water quality standards are based on an estimate of the amount of fish people eat. From that estimate are derived rules about the level of acceptable discharges of various contaminants. The idea, at least until this point, is that state rules are supposed to protect the average fish-eater.

For the last two decades, for surface-water standards, the state has used a fish-consumption estimate of 6.5 grams a day, about a half-pound a month. Regulators say the federal Environmental Protection Agency now favors a new approach – it prefers that states base their estimates on the populations that eat the most fish, rather than on an average consumption figure, meaning maximum protection for everyone. Tribal members and sports-fishermen are pressing the state to make that change; the group Waterkeepers Washington has already filed a lawsuit.

Regulators insist they have to do something. Ecology water-quality manager Kelly Susewind told a Senate committee last month that the feds could impose new rules on the state if Washington sits idly by. “We’re working hard to keep this in state control,” he said. Yet there are many skeptics: It’s not as if the state has been ordered to do anything.

The upshot is that Ecology is contemplating a massive increase in the fish-consumption estimate. It originally suggested 267 grams a day, about 17.6 pounds a month, based on studies of tribal fish consumption; most talk now seems to center on the standard adopted by Oregon in 2011 of 175 grams a day, or about 12 pounds a month. But whatever the number, the change will have a huge effect. If the Oregon rule is applied, the standards for more than 100 substances would be about 25 times more stringent. Permissible levels of contamination would become infinitesimal; in many cases laboratories would not be able to measure levels that low. Effluent would have to be cleaner than the bodies of water into which it is discharged. And the new rule would drive huge investment in the most advanced of cleanup technologies – read esoteric — and not necessarily the most reliable ones. Oregon may not have been wiped from the map yet, but its rule is relatively new, explains Laura Merrill of the Washington State Association of Counties; its effects are just beginning to be felt by dischargers as they seek to renew old permits. “How much taxpayer money are we going to put into this?” she asks.

Imposes Big Costs

The HDR study leaves the fish-consumption questions aside. Instead it goes into great detail about cleanup technologies and their costs, and essentially it offers support for an argument that has been sounded by business and local governments ever since Ecology began work on the rule: Massive cost and limited benefit. It focuses on four difficult-to-treat pollutants commonly found in the discharges of municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants. It concludes that even the most advanced water-treatment technologies would be unable to meet the Oregon standards for PCBs, and would be unlikely to meet them for arsenic. Mercury might depend on the standard that is adopted, and it is hard to tell what effect treatment might have on benzo(a)pyrene contamination.

But then comes the pricetag. The study takes a typical existing treatment plant of 5 million gallons a day capacity – big enough to serve 50,000 people. If upgraded to the best available technology, the plant would face additional costs of $75 million to $250 million over 25 years. A new facility of the same size would cost between $117 million and $388 million. And still its output would not meet the new standards.

The effort wouldn’t do much for the water,  either. Explains HDR project manager Dave Clark, “The concentrations that we are talking about are so low that even if we make a large additional reduction, presuming you could get to the standards, which you probably can’t, the mass reduction to the receiving waters would be very, very small. That is why we say there would be very little environmental benefit – we are not going to reduce the levels of these toxics very much.”

The most ironic finding? Those advanced cleanup technologies pose environmental problems of their own. Carbon dioxide output would increase — a rather problematic issue given the Inslee Administration’s emphasis on greenhouse-gas reduction. That’s because electricity use would increase two to four times, because of increased pumping and other requirements of the advanced filtration systems; CO2 impact would more than double. Other impacts would include increases in sewage sludge disposal, more truck traffic, more chemical usage, and increased need for land.

$200 a Month Sewer Bills

The HDR study goes only so far – it doesn’t provide a total statewide cost figure. But the city of Bellingham has produced an estimate that gives a sense of scale. Using an analytical process very similar to HDR’s, it has concluded that sewer bills would rise from the current $35 a month to somewhere between $200 and $250 a month, says Carl Schroeder of the Association of Washington Cities. That is the impact of a new wastewater treatment facility costing between $1 billion and $1.8 billion.

Now spread that across Washington. There are some 281 public wastewater treatment facilities in the state; all that discharge into surface water would face costs of the same order. There are roughly the same number of industrial dischargers.

Schroeder offers another way to describe the relative lack of benefit associated with the cost. The HDR report calculates that it costs $290 million to remove a pound of PCBs from wastewater. PCBs, it might be noted, are the next best thing to a naturally occurring element — though the compound was banned years ago, it lingers in the environment because it does not break down, and it turns up in wastewater because the flow of water flushes it downstream. Prior studies have indicated that over 25 years, municipal dischargers will inadvertently deposit 29 pounds of PCBs in Puget Sound; thus the cost to remove them will be $7.4 billion. And yet other mechanisms will continue to deposit PCBs as well – stormwater, air deposition, returning salmon – some 406 pounds total. So by taxing themselves $7.4 billion, city dwellers in the Puget Sound area would reduce PCB pollution by a miniscule 6 percent.

“We need to look where we can get the biggest bang for the buck,” Schroeder said. “We need to find a balanced and a practical solution to this, and that means figuring out how to deal with the other 94 percent. Not forcing these sorts of technological solutions on wastewater plants that are already cleaning up the water, already putting in very expensive top-of-the-line technology. We need to look at the whole system.”

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