BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is developing proposed aquatic life water quality standards for mercury pollution in Idaho that could have statewide ramifications.
The agency on Wednesday made public a proposed remedy resulting from a federal court’s 2021 ruling in a lawsuit by the Portland, Oregon-based Northwest Environmental Advocates and the Boise, Idaho-based Idaho Conservation League.
The court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2008 disapproval of Idaho’s mercury criteria created a mandatory duty for the EPA to develop criteria for the state that complies with the federal Clean Water Act.
The agency is taking public comments through Sept. 9 on its plan to propose the mercury criteria within 18 months. After the proposal is finalized, the EPA within nine months will determine whether the Endangered Species Act applies to it.
Idaho has runs of salmon and steelhead that are federally protected under the act. Several snail species plus bull trout and white sturgeon are also federally protected in the state.
If the Endangered Species Act does apply, the EPA will begin consultation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries division and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Those two agencies about eight years ago said Idaho's allowable mercury standards were not stringent enough.
“I think that we're going to be seeing — if EPA complies with these timelines and what the science says — more stringent standards in Idaho,” said Justin Hayes, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League.
Nina Bell, executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates, said she believes the federal court's “resounding” rejection of the EPA's argument that it did not have to create criteria for Idaho “increased the likelihood that pollution reduction actions will be taken.”
The lawsuit is not about human health risks from mercury, which can cause various physical problems and emotional instability.
But eating fish containing mercury is a known health risk. The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare puts out fish consumption advisories for water bodies around the state, typically recommending limitations on the amount of fish people should eat, particularly for children and pregnant or nursing women.
The federal court has retained jurisdiction if there is a dispute or to enforce compliance.
One part of the court's order said the EPA might not have to fulfill some aspects of the order if Idaho officials adopt mercury pollution criteria for aquatic life that the EPA approves and that comply with the Clean Water Act.
Mary Anne Nelson, surface and wastewater administrator for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, said the agency was still evaluating the EPA's action and what comments the department might make as part of the public comments.
“We are going to work with our stakeholders to determine if there is a place for Idaho in this process and what they would like to see DEQ take on, if anything, in this process,” she said.