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EPA sued over pollution harming fish, whales in Washington state

The agency is accused of greenlighting water quality standards in the Evergreen State that are hurting endangered aquatic species.

WASHINGTON (CN) — An endangered species advocacy group filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against the Environmental Protection Agency for approving water quality standards in Washington state that it says are allowing pollution to seep into the state’s waters and harm endangered species of fish and whales.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed the suit in Washington, D.C., federal court, claiming the EPA has repeatedly failed to make sure the aquatic cyanide limits in the water quality standards submitted to the federal agency by the Washington Department of Ecology are safe for the environment.

The complaint defines aquatic cyanide as "a toxic compound released into waterways by a variety of anthropogenic activities including urban stormwater runoff, industrial and municipal discharges, deposition from air pollution, and mining."

According to the suit, for more than 30 years the EPA has repeatedly failed to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service to ensure Washington state's proposed standards “are not jeopardizing the continued existence of endangered and threatened species or resulting in the destruction or adverse modification of their designated critical habitat.”

Failure to hold the consultations, which are required by the Endangered Species Act, “has allowed sources, including metal-mining processes, the chemical industry, iron and steel facilities and publicly owned wastewater-treatment facilities, to release dangerous levels of cyanide into Washington’s waters,” the Center for Biological Diversity said in a press release. 

The Arizona-based nonprofit added that the pollution threatens several species of fish that are already close to extinction due to climate change, dams and other threats, including Chinook and coho salmon, Southern Resident killer whales, steelhead trout and bull trout.

“The best available science indicates Washington’s cyanide pollution limits are harmful to imperiled salmon and, in turn, the orcas that depend on the fish as their primary food,” the group said.

The EPA is among 12 defendants listed in the complaint, along with a regional EPA office in Seattle, the Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Commerce, Department of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, along with the top officials from those agencies.

Andrew Hawley, a senior attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center who is representing the Center for Biological Diversity, said the defendants “sat back and watched these species dwindle.”

“Now, species from steelhead trout to Southern Resident orca whales face a much greater risk of extinction from the multitude of forces working against them while continuing to struggle in waters laced with dangerous levels of cyanide,” Hawley said in the nonprofit’s press release.

The environmental group wants a judge to declare that the agencies' failure to consult on Washington’s water quality criteria for cyanide violates the Endangered Species Act and order them to promptly complete a consultation.

Center for Biological Diversity staff attorney Ryan Shannon said in the press release that the “EPA has been allowing cyanide pollution that’s incredibly harmful to Washington’s precious salmon, trout and orcas for decades.”

“It’s well past time for the agency to protect the state’s waters from this harmful pollutant,” he added.

The Justice Department did not immediately return an email request for comment Thursday.

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