The Washington Department of Ecology is considering an unprecedented move to weaken water quality standards for PCBs in the Spokane River. A process known as a variance for toxic pollution would allow for a temporary reduction in state water quality standards for industrial and municipal dischargers – with no guaranteed end date or enforceable return to the standards that are currently state law. A variance for toxic PCBs has never been done before. This would give the Spokane River the first toxics variance in the nation, providing a playbook to apply this regulatory “off ramp” to other states and waterways.

Two years ago the EPA imposed a strong new standard to work towards for toxic pollution like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). This was positive step forward. Then the concept of a variance, or a lower bar to clean the river to, was put forward as a way to ultimately meet the high standard. Five pollution dischargers have applied for variances. This development represents an end run around those 2016 EPA pollution limits for PCBs. A variance would allow industrial and municipal dischargers to determine and propose their own pollution limits. They would then be granted leeway in the timelines and methods by which they clean up their pollution and by which they define a “clean” River. 

See the comments we submitted to the WA Department of Ecology here.