For Immediate Release, February 24, 2022

Contact:

Ryan Shannon, Center for Biological Diversity, (971) 717-6407, rshannon@biologicaldiversity.org
Andrew Hawley, Western Environmental Law Center, (206) 487-7250, hawley@westernlaw.org

Lawsuit Targets EPA’s Failure to Protect Washington’s Endangered Salmon, Orcas, Trout From Cyanide Pollution

WASHINGTON— The Center for Biological Diversity and Western Environmental Law Center sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today over its failure to protect Chinook and coho salmon, Southern Resident killer whales, steelhead trout and bull trout from the effects of toxic cyanide in Washington’s waters.

Over the past 30 years, the EPA has repeatedly approved water-quality standards for cyanide pollution set by Washington’s Department of Ecology under the Clean Water Act. As a result, the state 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. This threatens species already on the brink of extinction because of climate change, dams and other threats.

“The EPA has been allowing cyanide pollution that’s incredibly harmful to Washington’s precious salmon, trout and orcas for decades,” said Ryan Shannon, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s well past time for the agency to protect the state’s waters from this harmful pollutant.”

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. In approving these standards, the EPA has violated its duty under the Endangered Species Act to ensure that they do not jeopardize the species’ continued existence or harm their critical habitat.

“EPA sat back and watched these species dwindle,” said Andrew Hawley, a senior attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “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.”

Under the Endangered Species Act, the EPA’s approval of water-quality standards set by the state under the Clean Water Act for pollutants, including cyanide, must be first reviewed by the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That review ensures the standards EPA approves will not jeopardize the survival of any endangered species.

The EPA initiated such consultation over nationwide standards that were intended to also cover Washington’s standards — aside from those in effect in Puget Sound, which are even less protective than the standards proposed by the EPA. But after the other two federal agencies determined the standards would indeed jeopardize the survival and recovery of salmon, orcas and bull trout, and harm habitat essential to their survival, the EPA backed out of consultation for both the nationwide and Washington standards.

Because of the EPA’s failure, the Department of Ecology continues to uphold and enforce outdated and inadequate water-quality standards for cyanide.

Today’s suit was filed in federal court in Washington, D.C. The Center for Biological Diversity is represented by in-house attorney Ryan Shannon as well as Andrew Hawley and Jennifer Calkins with the Western Environmental Law Center.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

The Western Environmental Law Center uses the power of the law to safeguard the wildlife, wildlands, and communities of the western U.S. in the face of a changing climate. As a public interest law firm, WELC does not charge clients and partners for services, but relies instead on charitable gifts from individuals, families, and foundations to accomplish our mission.