Though Well-Intentioned, EPA’s Approach to Setting Human Health Water Quality Criteria is Bad Public Policy

May 18, 2016

Schwartz_Jerry-WebBy Jerry Schwartz
Senior Director, Energy & Environmental Policy

For decades, it has been a common theme of EPA administrators—including Gina McCarthy—that we can grow the economy and protect the environment at the same time. I agree. But policymakers must make wise policy choices that balance benefits and costs and that achieve true human health protection for the costs incurred. EPA’s new policy for the calculation of Clean Water Act (CWA) Human Health Water Quality Criteria (HHWQC), as embodied in its proposed federal HHWQC for Washington and Maine and the positions it has advanced in Idaho, unfortunately fail that test.

The policy, based on tribal treaty rights, would establish a new risk paradigm that strives to protect those who consume large quantities of fish from theoretical risks resulting from the application of “compounded conservatism” in the formula for calculating HHWQC. EPA’s policy results in unnecessarily stringent CWA permit limits -  some of which are unachievable even with the expenditure of billions of dollars - and provide no measurable health benefit when compared to more reasonable alternatives that EPA has rejected.

The agency also is rewriting the rules that govern the roles of EPA and the states under the CWA. Long-standing guidance makes clear that states have the discretion to develop their own criteria as long as they protect designated uses. EPA may prefer that states adopt its science and policy choices, such as the new policy on accounting for tribal treaty rights in setting criteria. However, EPA regulations are clear that states can choose not to do so when developing their HHWQC as long as those choices reflect site-specific conditions or are scientifically defensible. Those well-established regulations should trump a new policy, the basis of which is far from clear.

EPA’s policy is well-intentioned. But its application is simply bad public policy as it results in extremely high costs with little benefit.

Click here read Jerry’s full paper (“Human Health Criteria, Fish Consumption Rates—More Important Policy Implications Than Clean Water Rule?”) published May 18, 2016 in Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Environment Report.