How Did Get Here? Water Quality Standards in the 2021 Legislative Session

Watch our video fact sheet on WVDEP’s human health criteria proposal.

How much toxic pollutants are allowed in our rivers and streams before the water becomes harmful to public health? This legislative session, lawmakers are tasked with making that important decision as the state updates the human health criteria included our water quality standards. The human health criteria establish a safe level for pollutants, where the concentrations of chemicals in our water will not harm the public’s health. These criteria regulate some of the most toxic chemicals known to man, including DDT, chloroform, and cyanide.

In 2015, EPA updated the values of the human health criteria for 94 pollutants based on the amount of water we drink, number of fish we eat, and the average body weight. They also relied on other factors, such as cancer risk. Their rec-calculation used the best available science at the time and resulted in some of the values for pollutants decreasing and others increasing.

In preparation for the 2019 Legislative Session, the WV Department of Environmental Protection proposed updates to 56 of the 94 pollutants using a state fish consumption rate that was half of the national average. Since the state decided we ate less fish, we could be exposed to higher levels of chemicals. During the Legislative Session, there was heated debate on the criteria updates. Ultimately, the lawmakers decided to delay updates for further study. That has  led us to the 2021 Legislative Session.

Over the past 2 years, WV Rivers Coalition has studied this issue in depth. In the fall of 2019, WVDEP invited proposals on how the state should proceed. WV Rivers submitted a proposal that made 3 recommendations: 1) don’t weaken any existing standards, 2) use a fish consumption rate that is consistent with neighboring states, and 3) adopt all the criteria that would strengthen our standards including pollutants that are not currently regulated.

In this video, executive director, Angie Rosser explains the importance of the fish consumption rate calculation. 

Last summer, the WVDEP submitted their water quality standards recommendations that the 2021 Legislature is now considering. The WVDEP took one step in the right direction, but the majority of their proposed changes don’t go far enough to protect public health. Fortunately, WVDEP is now using the national average fish consumption rate that is more protective of public health and in line with our neighboring states.

However, of the 94 chemicals EPA has recommended updating limits for, WVDEP has selected only 24 to update. Unfortunately, not all of the standards would be stronger, 13 of the 24 would be weakened. And some of them would be weakened quite drastically, allowing more toxins in our water.

Public health experts agree that any additional exposure to these toxic chemicals would be more harmful to public health. In a state with the 3rd highest cancer death rate in the nation, do we really want to take that risk?

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