Lawsuit Launched to Protect Washington’s Endangered Salmon, Orcas, Trout From Cyanide Pollution

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For Immediate Release, December 21, 2021


Ryan Shannon, Center for Biological Diversity, (971) 717-6407, [email protected]
Jennifer Calkins, Western Environmental Law Center, (206) 607-9867, [email protected]

Lawsuit Launched to Protect Washington’s Endangered Salmon, Orcas, Trout From Cyanide Pollution

PORTLAND, Ore.— Conservation organizations filed a formal notice today of their intent to sue multiple federal agencies and Washington’s Department of Ecology for their failure to protect multiple populations of chinook and coho salmon, Southern Resident killer whales, steelhead trout and bull trout from the effects of cyanide in Washington’s waters.

According to the notice, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state’s Department of Ecology set water quality standards under the Clean Water Act for cyanide pollution that are known to harm endangered salmon and, in turn, the orcas that depend on the fish as their primary food.

“More than two decades ago, the EPA and the state of Washington set limits on cyanide above what our precious salmon and orcas need to have any chance at survival,” said Ryan Shannon, a staff attorney at the Center. “But instead of fixing the known problem, the agencies have done nothing. This failure is both illegal and just plain wrong.”

Under the Endangered Species Act, the EPA’s approval of water quality standards set by the state for pollutants, including cyanide, must be first reviewed by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure the approval does not jeopardize the survival of any endangered species. These standards in turn limit discharge of cyanide and other pollutants into the state’s waterways.

The EPA initiated such “consultation” over nationwide standards that were intended to also cover Washington’s standards. 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.

“EPA sat back and watched these species dwindle,” said Jennifer Calkins, Diehl Fellow with the Western Environmental Law Center. “Now, every single one, from steelhead trout to Southern Resident orca, faces 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.”

Because of the EPA’s failure, toxic cyanide continues to be discharged into Washington’s rivers, harming fish, and the Department of Ecology continues to uphold and enforce outdated and inadequate water quality standards for cyanide.

As a result, the state has allowed sources, including metal mining processes, the chemical industry, industrial iron and steel facilities and publicly owned wastewater treatment facilities, to continue to release dangerous levels of cyanide into Washington’s waters. This has resulted in conditions that threaten species already on the brink of extinction because of numerous threats, including warming waters, climate change and dams.

The organizations are represented by Andrew Hawley and Jennifer Calkins with the Western Environmental Law Center and Ryan Shannon with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Southern Resident orcas. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries. Image is available for media use.

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.


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