State government assumes, when deciding how clean Washington waters should be, that people eat up to a half-pound of local seafood per month.
But it’s not unusual for Jim Peters, a member of the Squaxin Island Tribal Council, to dine with his family three times a week on locally caught salmon, halibut, clams or shrimp – not to mention leftovers.
“It is a ridiculously low amount and does not represent in any way what the majority of Washingtonians are actually eating,” the tribal council wrote of the state rate in a policy document it adopted this year.
Encouraged by tribes and environmentalists, Gov. Chris Gregoire’s Department of Ecology is moving toward making a much higher estimate of people’s fish-eating habits that could shape the water-pollution decisions of the next governor’s administration.
A proposal is due in July, but preliminary recommendations range as high as a half-pound a day.
A backlash is building among industrial businesses that discharge pollutants and cities that treat sewage. They say clean-water standards are important, but basing them on such a high rate could make them impossible to meet.
Any change would likely come with ways to adapt it to individual sites and variances that would give plants time to ease into compliance, perhaps even over decades. Still, the effort required in the meantime would come at a “catastrophic cost” to industry and the state’s 300 water-treatment plants, Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business, wrote in an online posting Friday.
The AWB and other opponents are questioning the studies about fish-eating patterns underlying Ecology’s decision and the need for any statewide fish-eating standard at all.
“You have to find out where the problems are, target them and clean them up rather than having a general standard,” Brunell, whose group is the state’s chamber of commerce, said in an interview. “What we see is a standard being adopted that really, we haven’t had a chance to analyze what it all means. We don’t even know if the technology’s there to meet it.”
Skeptics argue the rules could end up requiring them to actually make their discharge cleaner than the body of water it’s being dumped into.
On the other side of the debate, tribes caution that the amounts being considered for fish consumption are sufficient only as a middle step on the way to an even higher rate. And some environmental and tribal advocates worry about the ways rules could be watered down.
“There’s a large movement out there to make sure the industries are protected,” said Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish tribe, “and I think that’s all fine and good. But I think people’s health should come first above anything.”
Stricter standards should provide an incentive for water-quality technology to catch up, said Dave Peeler of Olympia, a member of the Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team.
“The problem is what happens in the meantime,” argues Rep. Shelly Short, a Republican from Addy. “The recession has created a much different look in Washington state, and the business community as a whole says uncertainty as a whole makes it very difficult for them.”
Republicans raised concerns during this year’s legislative session. A section inserted into the proposed state budget would have required Ecology to justify its standards, but that was stripped out before the budget passed.
In setting a new rate for fish consumption, Washington could end up going from sharing the lowest rate to being even tougher than Oregon, which has a new, highest-in-the-nation rate. That state figures people eat up to 175 grams of seafood a day, or nearly 12 pounds a month.
Washington has two rates today, for two types of environmental rules. The one governing cleanup of contaminated sediment is 54 grams a day and was set in 1991, based on a survey of anglers in Commencement Bay. The rate for water quality is 6.5 grams a day, a national standard set based on federal evaluations in the 1980s.
More recent studies indicate the biggest fish eaters in some Indian tribes and Asian and Pacific Islander communities might eat several hundred grams a day.
“The big motivator is we have local data that shows that our fish consumption rates are not at all accurate,” said Tom Laurie, executive adviser to Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant. “This actually came to light years ago, but we were waiting for Oregon to do its work on a similar process.”
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has approved Oregon’s standard. Laurie said the federal agency rejected a proposal from Idaho to set a lower standard of 17.5 grams per day because it didn’t take local data into account.
Washington’s department in September made a preliminary recommendation of 157 to 267 grams per day, or about 11 to 18 pounds per month.
It expects to propose a rate in July and approve it in December after taking public input. That rate would directly apply only to the regulations dealing with cleanup of sediment.
Opponents aren’t worried about the sediment standards nearly as much as they fear the effect they could have on a parallel process of setting new water quality standards.
The water standards won’t be finished before Gregoire leaves office in January. But it might be hard for the next administration’s regulators to justify adopting a different rate if their predecessors have already determined how much people eat. They will “bind future administrations,” Brunell wrote.
Ecology’s Laurie said the agency is open to arguments for the water-quality rate being different – perhaps multiple regional rates instead of one statewide standard – but also said it makes sense to have a single, uniform rate.
Rates will be based on studies that opponents question. They point out that raw data from people surveyed by the tribes isn’t available.
But the tribes and state officials say raw data isn’t typically released out of privacy concerns and that the studies were validated by independent academic firstname.lastname@example.org