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Economic and dam related articles

DEQ Revising Water Pollutant Criteria
to Meet EPA Rules

by CBB Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - July 11, 2003

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is in the process of revising as many as 281 different toxic water quality criteria to catch up with changes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has made in similar federal criteria over the past 14 years.

The state agency responsible for clean water and air in Oregon, held public hearings this month in Bend, Roseburg, and twice in Portland, to take public comment on its proposed revisions and is giving the public until Aug. 1 to submit written comments to the Department.

While many changes include stiffer criteria for pollutants that affect human health, it will also relax other criteria. In addition, DEQ will change the way it applies water quality standards in reservoirs where water stratification occurs. While existing regulations require dam operators, such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to meet water quality standards at all strata, DEQ is proposing that the dam operator need only meet water quality standards in one strata.

According to Martin Fitzpatrick of DEQ's Water Quality Division, the state's existing water quality standards are far behind federal standards. The state criteria for toxic pollutants were approved in 1991 and are based on 1986 EPA criteria. An EPA audit of Oregon criteria in 1999 found that the state needed an update.

"We are quite far behind on updating our toxic criteria," Fitzpatrick said at a public hearing Thursday, July 10, at DEQ's offices in Portland. "We are looking at revising up to 281 different criteria, mostly those affecting human health."

He said that since the state approved its criteria in 1991, the EPA passed new toxic rules in 1992, aquatic rules in 1995, made an additional correction in 1999, passed a California toxic rule and human health criteria, both in 2000, and updated their water quality criteria in 2002.

A Technical Advisory Committee made up of representatives from universities and some state and federal agencies reviewed all these EPA criteria, asking why EPA adopted the criteria in the first place and whether the criteria would protect fish species listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act, before making its recommendations to the DEQ. Overall, according to Fitzpatrick, it adopted the EPA criteria for most compounds, but recommended stricter limits for metals to provide greater protections for salmonids.

Stricter criteria will be applied to cadmium and dioxin, for example. DEQ found that the heavy metal cadmium, a byproduct of metal working industries, is more toxic to freshwater species, such as bull trout and brown trout, than previously thought. In addition, new information about dioxin shows greater human sensitivity to the toxin than previously known. On the other hand, criteria for ammonia would be relaxed due to new information showing that freshwater fish are more tolerant to the toxin than thought, and criteria for arsenic will be relaxed due to greater tolerance in humans.

Although it applies just to temperature, dissolved oxygen and acidity, DEQ intends to relax criteria for reservoir operations by allowing dam operators to meet water quality criteria at one level of stratification in the reservoir, rather than requiring operators to meet those criteria at all strata. That would leave some strata not in compliance, Fitzpatrick said. Now, he continued, some reservoirs are in violation simply because of the physics involved. The new criteria, however, does require dam operators to take all practicable measures to bring "all layers in compliance with the numeric criteria" and to ensure that water downstream from the dam meets water quality standards.

For human health, DEQ looks at risk, the potency of toxins and exposure times to the toxin when setting criteria. For example, it revised upwards its recommended fish consumption rate based on new information, some of which was produced by the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission.

DEQ will take written public comment by mail, fax or e-mail on its proposed water quality revisions through 5 p.m., Aug. 1. It will evaluate the public input and take its final criteria to the state's Environmental Quality Commission later this year for final approval before delivering the new criteria to the EPA.

Related Pages:
Oregon Department of Environmental Quality
"Toxic Pollutants and Water Quality Criteria" Fact Sheet
Draft issue paper

CBB Staff
USFWS Unveils Fish Passage Decision Support System
Columbia Basin Bulletin, July 11, 2003

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