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A matter of standards


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POSTED: Thursday, April 23, 2009

Earlier this year, the City and County of Honolulu approached the Legislature to assist in updating state water quality standards (SWQS), which the state Department of Health (DOH) concedes are erroneous and outdated.

Originally, House Bill 834 and Senate Bill 1008 were submitted by the city to correct SWQS for chlordane, dieldrin and clarifying enterococcus as the fecal indicator organism within coastal/recreational waters.

DOH amended the draft to include updating all of the pollutants listed in SWQS with limits contained in the EPA 2006 federal standards. The counties in Hawaii had reservations about a wholesale adoption of federal standards and took the position that only those pollutants currently listed within SWQS should be updated to reflect federal limits.

It is important to note that the city is not seeking to circumvent the administrative rule-making process. To the contrary, the city urged the state, for more than a year, to amend the SWQS administratively. We wrote to the governor and met with DOH staff on several occasions. We pointed out to DOH their legal obligation to review SWQS at least once every three years, which is well overdue. We even filed a formal petition for rule making. We are supporting legislative action because we have been unsuccessful in getting DOH to initiate rule making, and DOH agrees these standards need to be updated.

Second, the administrative process is not more rigorous — in fact, we believe the legislative process is more rigorous and transparent. Three noticed public hearings, three publicly-noticed decision-making meetings, and three public votes have taken place thus far. There is extensive public testimony already on the record.

Third, we question why any environmental group would cling to SWQS based on antiquated EPA data and analysis and be opposed to updating the SWQS? As DOH has stated with regard to SB 1008 and HB 834, "These (current) federally-recommended toxic pollutant criteria provide substantial and sufficient public health protection for fish consumption and are developed with nationwide resources and expertise that cannot be matched at the state level."

To imply that the city is willing to risk jeopardizing the environment or public health to achieve a litigation or regulatory outcome is inflammatory and misleading to the public. It has been represented that we are "relaxing the standards." DOH is amending the 30-year-old standards, with the concurrence of Dr. Hans Krock, who originally developed the standards, to make them current. States have always looked to the USEPA for guidance in this area. By characterizing the current National Water Quality Standards as "relaxed" is questioning the integrity of the EPA.

With the huge financial implications for the city of these judicial and regulatory decisions, at a time when our residents can least afford it, we do not apologize for pursuing correct decisions based on standards that reflect the most current scientific knowledge. Likewise, we perceive no benefit in accepting such costly results based on bureaucratic inertia, lack of resources, or misplaced comfort in the status quo.

Appropriate SWQS are of utmost importance to our state. The scientists said the SWQS that would be adopted under these bills are the best standards for Hawaii. The environmental groups should be supporting this effort, and many of them might. Unfortunately, the only environmental groups that have publicly taken a position on this legislation are the NGO plaintiffs, and their reactive opposition is based solely on their narrow interests as litigants against the city.

In conclusion, the passage of these bills does not mean that changes to the SWQS allow counties to increase concentrations of these chemicals in their discharge. The counties will continue to operate and improve their facilities with the public's health being the primary focus of their mission. As science evolves, so do water quality standards.

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Timothy E. Steinberger directs the city's Department of Environmental Services.