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Water | Ecotrope

What good is a DEQ standard that can't be met?

Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is proposing the nation’s most stringent water quality standards to reduce toxics in the fish we eat from Oregon streams and lakes.

After four years of study, DEQ has concluded that Oregon should aim to reduce the levels of 114 toxic water pollutants that accumulate in fish tissue and pose a risk to people who eat them (many of the identified toxins can cause cancer).

But meeting the new standards will be a challenge for cities and companies with water pollution permits. And in some cases, it will be impossible. Wastewater treatment plant managers told the state at a hearing in Portland Wednesday that there is no available technology that will remove so many toxins from their wastewater discharges.

J. Michael Read, manager of the Oak Lodge Sanitary District in Milwaukie, said controlling the source of some toxins will be more effective than cracking down on wastewater treatment plants that can only do so much to reduce reduce the pollutants once they’re in the water.

“We’ll do whatever we can to protect the Willamette River,” he said. “But the proposed toxics standards are flawed. Currently available technology are not capable of removing toxics to the levels of the new standard.”

State officials say they will make exceptions for the plants that cannot meet the standards.

Debra Sturdevant, water quality standards coordinator for DEQ, said her agency knows some of the standards can’t be met in some cases.

“Under certain conditions a source can get a variance,” she said. “But they need to develop pollution reduction plan to outline what they can do. One of the treatment technologies, microfiltration, can do some of it. It really depends on which pollutant we’re talking about. Treatment technologies can be quite expensive. If it’s really exorbitantly expensive for a city, they might work on source reduction.”

Critics at the hearing Wednesday argued the variance process will only create more paperwork without improving water quality.

DEQ has been working with the Environmental Protection Agency and stakeholder groups for four years to design the right water pollution limits for the amount of fish Oregonians eat. In June of 2010, the EPA rejected DEQ’s toxic water pollution rules because they were based on a fish consumption rate that was deemed to be too low.

The new proposed regulations – which crack down on releases of the banned pesticide DDT as well as a harmful plasticizer, a pesticide compound, a fossil fuel byproduct and an industrial chemical – are set based on the goal of protecting people who eat 175 grams of fish a day (as opposed to 17.5 grams a day under the last set of proposed rules and 6.5 grams a day under the existing rules).

Native American tribes are strong proponents of the new standards because they eat a lot of fish. The current water quality standards are designed to protect people who eat less than one meal a month. The new standards protect people who eat around 23 servings of fish per month.

The Oregon Environmental Quality Commission is scheduled to vote on the proposed rules at its June meeting.

Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Toxics in fish

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