Response to: “Stop using fish-consumption rate as a proxy for water quality”

There were a few misconceptions in the Seattle Time’s editorial last week on the fish consumption rate.

A FEW weeks ago, this page commented on the cleanup of sediment in the Duwamish River. In the conflict over the cleanup goal, our position was that the goal must be achievable — and that the people expected to pay for the cleanup should reasonably be able to do it. A similar position makes sense regarding water quality for Washington’s rivers.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, river water should be clean enough so that people can eat the fish.

It is true that the CWA requires water to be clean enough to eat the fish. How much fish do you eat? If you eat fish more than once a month, then Washington State water quality standards do not protect you.

For some rivers, that’s a goal that will take awhile. Regarding, say, liver cancer from ingesting PCBs, there will be some risk, even one in a million. The question becomes: How much risk based on how much consumption of fish?

In 1992, regulators assumed that people ate less than half a pound of fish a month from local rivers. Later, Oregon surveyed Native Americans and immigrants and reset the assumption at 12 pounds a month. In 2011, it plugged this 27-fold increase into a formula it had, and the result was a standard not currently possible to meet.

This actually means that if you are Asian, Native American, or from a Pacific Islander community, you probably eat fish on a daily basis, exposing you to a risk at 27 times the current standard. You can roughly calculate your own fish consumption rate and how it compares to the state’s standard at

This red herring is simply not edible. The standards are based on fish consumption, cancer risk, the toxicity of the chemical, and how much a specific chemical concentrates in the food chain. The focus should be on how the state implements the Clean Water Act to achieve the goals for healthy seafood, not on lowering the standard.

Oregon hasn’t enforced its standard yet, but industry and municipalities worry about it. In some cases, the discharge is supposed to be purer than the river.

That’s because the river is already polluted.

“You end up with numbers that are not realistic,” says John Ledger, vice president of Associated Oregon Industries. “But there they are, and the courts will uphold them.”

Maybe it would just be easier to declare the chemicals less toxic. That would make the standards lower too.

Washington’s discharge permits are still under the old standard, but the Department of Ecology is working on a new one, and has just been sued by environmental groups for being too slow. The department is under pressure to adopt Oregon’s standard. Industry here, led by Boeing, says Oregon’s standard is impossible.

Some leadership. Boeing won’t even sit down with Governor Inslee. The governor convened business leaders and tribal government leaders last month to look at solutions and in the words of one participant, Boeing couldn’t even be “enough of a good corporate citizen to show up.” No, it’s easier just to lobby the legislature to delay disrupt and defund the agency charged with protecting state waters.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency, which has oversight over Ecology, is reassuring: “Nobody is going to implement a water quality standard in a way that shuts down the ability of business to go forward,” says Dennis McLerran, EPA’s administrator here. “You will be able to get permits.”

Yes, industry replies, you will give us permits. But if your standard of cleanliness is so high that we cannot meet it for 30 or 40 years, environmental groups will sue us for failing to meet it. And, under the Clean Water Act, they will win.

There are chemicals in the environment that are widely present — especially arsenic, mercury, and PCBs that need special attention. Business may not be responsible for those chemicals and it is an issue that’s being worked on. But it doesn’t change the acceptable level of risk for cancer or neurological damage to children.

This state should improve the quality of its rivers while keeping such things as paper mills, and not suffocating local governments under lawsuits. That means discharge standards should be attainable during the period of the permit. The standards should also be at a cost viable operations can reasonably pay.

Sure, but this all has to do with implementation, not the standard for highly toxic chemicals. Ecology is considering variances and longer schedules to come into compliance.

As technology improves, standards can go up. And will.

This is the reverse of how environmental regulations have always led to innovation. There are countless examples of environmental regulations spurring innovations that have been good for the economy and human health, from car gas mileage to clean air industries.

If we don’t ask for cleaner water, we aren’t ever going to get it.

If standards go up to what people actually eat, then technology will improve. And definitely will.

What course of action is the Seattle Times advocating? Leave the standards at a level that doesn’t protect us from pollution? Let business set the standards?

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