Clean Water Act Human Health Water Quality Criteria/Fish Consumption Rate


At the national and state level, EPA has been imposing policies that will make Human Health Water Quality Criteria (HHWQC) — national water quality criteria to protect human health — much more stringent, leading to more impaired waters listings, Total Maximum Daily Loads, and extremely costly and unattainable permit limits, while providing virtually no additional human health protection. Under the Clean Water Act (CWA), states have the primary responsibility to develop water quality standards. States begin that process with EPA’s HHWQC but can use other criteria, as long as, when viewed collectively, the standards are adequately protective of human health.


Extreme Risk Management Policy

EPA’s national HHWQC already contain needlessly conservative assumptions such as that people drink 2.4 liters (about 2.5 quarts) of untreated surface water every day for 70 years. New national policies that promote tribal treaty rights in environmental protection have led EPA to pressure states to calculate their HHWQC on even more conservative assumptions, such as a Fish Consumption Rate (FCR) of 175 grams/day and extremely conservative excess lifetime cancer risk levels. While, to date, EPA has only pressed Northwest states and Maine to adopt these new policies, the agency could apply them to any state with a recognized tribe with a treaty with the U.S. — more than 40 states.


Overstepping Its Authority in the Northwest and Maine

EPA pressured Oregon to adopt more stringent HHWQC, and recently proposed to impose federal HHWQC on Washington that are even more stringent that those adopted in Oregon. EPA also pressured Idaho to adopt unnecessarily stringent HHWQC. In 2015, EPA rejected Maine’s HHWQC based on the same policies and announced it would impose federal HHWQC there, as it did in Washington. Maine sued EPA over the rejected standards.


High Costs with Virtually No Human Health Benefits

In 2013, a coalition of Washington stakeholders issued a study that found if the Oregon standards (which are less stringent than EPA’s proposal for Washington) were applied to Washington, industries and municipalities would not be able to meet the resulting CWA permit limits and the potential cost would be in the billions of dollars. Based on Washington’s 2014 population and information from the American Cancer Society, with HHWQC based on EPA’s preferred acceptable cancer risk level, the theoretical incidence rate of cancer is predicted to increase from 38,230 to 38,230.01 — a tiny fraction of a cancer case per year. Criteria based on an a more reasonable cancer risk level, which EPA consistently told states it would reject, result in an increase in cancer from 38,230 to 38230.1, again a tiny fraction of a case per year. Any actual change in cancer incidence will be lower than even these tiny fractions and may, in fact, be zero.