Oregon Poised to Adopt Nation’s Strictest Water Quality Standards for Toxic Chemicals


After years of planning and debate, the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission (EQC) next week will likely adopt a proposal by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to tighten human health-based water quality criteria for a broad range of toxic pollutants. The proposed rules are driven by a fish consumption rate that is ten times higher than assumed in previous rules. Once adopted by the EQC and approved by the EPA, the new rules will result in stricter limits on water discharge permits and new programs to control agricultural and forestry runoff. The proposed rules are controversial and set Oregon apart as having the strictest water quality standards in the country.

DEQ’s staff report on the proposed rules, as well as the proposed rules themselves can be found here.

Introduction and history of the toxics rules

A complex suite of federal and state laws govern water quality standards. The federal Clean Water Act (CWA) requires states to identify beneficial uses of all natural water bodies and to adopt water quality requirements designed to protect the identified uses (e.g. drinking water supply, recreation, fish and wildlife health). States must submit their proposed water quality standards to EPA for approval. EPA has authority to reject a state’s proposed standards and substitute its own standards.

Water quality standards form the basis of permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) that regulate the discharge of pollutants from specific sources. States are also directed to develop additional programs to control water pollution from so-called “nonpoint” sources, such as runoff from agricultural land, that do not require NPDES permits under the CWA. When a water body fails to meet water quality standards, the state develops a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan that identifies the sources of pollution in the water body, allocates pollutant loads to the various sources and details how the loading limits will be achieved over time. TMDLs must also be approved by EPA.

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