State passes on setting fish-consumption rates

Health: Next administration will settle controversy that has major implications on pollution-discharge levels

Staff writerAugust 20, 2012 

A dispute over how much seafood people eat in Washington – and what it means for the state’s environmental regulations – will have to wait for the administration of a Gov. Jay Inslee or a Gov. Rob McKenna.

Fish-consumption rates are more controversial than they sound, because of their implications for how much pollution industrial and municipal plants are allowed to discharge into lakes, rivers and Puget Sound.

That’s why lobbyists for businesses, local governments, environmentalists and Indian tribes were at one time eagerly awaiting rules that Gov. Chris Gregoire’s Department of Ecology proposed last week and a technical document that is now due out in the next two weeks. Both were supposed to include estimates of fish consumption that would lead to a rate in state rules by the end of the year.

But Ecology decided not to publish a number for fish consumption in either document, which will delay the adoption of an official rate until 2013 or 2014.

“There’s not going to be a proposed rate anywhere, any time soon,” Ecology spokeswoman Sandy Howard said. “We will (set) it through the process to develop the new (human health-based) water-quality standards in our state.”

Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant announced last month that his agency would start the process of setting water-quality standards earlier than planned, but would be proposing a fish-consumption rate as part of that process, instead of including a rate in earlier rules on polluted sediment.

That takes the heat off of the sediment-rules process, which is otherwise fairly noncontroversial, and gives the agency more time to answer questions about the fish rates. Business and local-government interests reacted with alarm after Ecology issued a draft of its technical document last year that estimated people need to be safe eating 157 to 267 grams per day, or 11 to 18 pounds per month.

Washington has two official rates today, and both are far lower: one set in sediment rules at 54 grams of seafood a day, and another set in water-quality rules at 6.5 grams a day. Indian tribes and environmentalists say both are too low and don’t reflect what many people are eating, especially big fish eaters in some tribes and in Asian and Pacific Islander communities.

They say the rates should be closer to those in Oregon, which set a new, highest-in-the-nation rate of 175 grams a day.

Businesses worry such a high rate might result in water-quality standards that are higher than can be achieved through current methods of treating runoff.

“We were looking at a process where basically everybody, public and private alike, would be found not in compliance with the law,” said Christian McCabe, executive director of the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association.

Ecology replied that regulations would allow for phasing in compliance while technology catches up, such as through variances for individual sites – which worries some environmentalists.

Now Sturdevant says the procedures for compliance will be designed along with the regulations. Environmentalists are hopeful the side-by-side work will help keep exceptions from watering down the rules, said People for Puget Sound policy director Heather Trim.

“We did want them to do the standards this year,” Trim said, but she’s hopeful there will be pressure on the next administration to create new rates.

A new alliance of tribal and environmental groups, the Keep Our Seafood Clean Coalition, has formed with that intent.

McCabe, too, thinks the process will resume, but hopes it will be “more thoughtful and more deliberative.”

“I wouldn’t expect under either a McKenna or an Inslee administration that the issue’s just going to go away.”

jordan.schrader@ 360-786-1826 @Jordan_Schrader

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