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Know the West

Washington’s new clean-water plan is a mixed bag


Washington’s governor last week announced a bold approach for creating cleaner, safer waters for fish and the people who eat them. Unless he didn’t.

Every day, the state’s Department of Health releases a map of waterways so polluted that restrictions are placed on the amount and types of fish people should eat. Washington has many troubled waterways, including the industrialized Duwamish River (“River of No Return,” HCN June 23, 2014). On the other side of the state, an entire section of the Spokane River has signs posted near its banks (and on the state map) warning: “Don’t eat any fish.”

Advisory from the Washington state health department.

The state has been under pressure recently from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to revise its fish consumption rate to better protect the health of people who eat locally caught fish. (The rate is a measurement of how much fish is being consumed, in order to help state officials decide how to regulate pollution accordingly. Until now, the rate has been out of date and misleadingly low.) The EPA, in turn, is being pressured thanks to a lawsuit filed last year by tribes and environmental groups, who argue that many Indians, immigrants and impoverished people eat far more fish than the state currently assumes.

Gov. Inslee agrees. “I gotta tell you, there are people who eat a lot of fish,” he said at his press conference last week. Inslee announced Washington would match Oregon with the most-protective “fish consumption rate” in the nation at 175 grams per day. The new rate assumes that each Washington resident, on average, consumes a six-ounce serving of locally caught fish per day, or a little more than 11 pounds a month, and that waterways must be clean enough that levels of pollutants like mercury or PCBs accumulating in fish won’t kill anyone. The current standard is based on an assumption of 6.5 grams per day, or a little more than five pounds in a year.

But moments after unveiling the higher consumption rate, Inslee proposed a tenfold weakening of the state’s water quality standards that protect against cancer risk. Amid criticism, Inslee insisted there’s “no backsliding” on water standards and that “there is no either-or between environmental and economic health.”

The regional head of the EPA appears to think the change is backsliding. “If Washington reduces the level of cancer risk protection … tribes, certain low-income, minority communities, and other high fish consuming groups could be provided less protection than they have now,” EPA’s Region 10 director Dennis McLerran wrote to a state senator just days before Inslee’s announcement. By increasing the fish consumption rate but rolling back the cancer risk assessment — two arcane calculations in the formula that sets water quality standards — "they are giving with one hand and taking away with the other," said Fran Wilshusen, habitat director for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

The governor’s advisory team was surprised to discover there would indeed be less protection when crunching the numbers, said Kelly Susewind, special assistant to the director of the state Department of Ecology. Which is why, Susewind said, the rollback is a “hybrid” in which the standards are weakened across the board, but the department will not allow discharge (from industry or municipalities) of cancer-causing toxic at levels higher than presently permitted.

Critics of the cancer risk assessment change call it a concession to industry and municipal wastewater dischargers. The dischargers argue tougher clean water standards are prohibitively expensive and may even be unreachable with current technology. Boeing derailed former Gov. Christine Gregoire’s attempt at setting a higher fish consumption rate that may have catalyzed stricter pollution standards in 2012, according to documents obtained by the independent journalist group, InvestigateWest.

“Business is worried about the economic impact” of tougher water quality standards, Susewind said. “(Companies) are looking at investing on a 20- or 30-year schedule, and they ask, ‘How will I know that 10 years from now I (won’t) end up with a limit I can’t comply with?’” Susewind said. The governor’s plan, he said, allows business more certainty.

“So the good news is that nothing is getting worse?” asked Chris Wilke, executive director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit that’s been pushing for bigger improvements to water quality standards for years. “That’s not why we started this process,” Wilke said, referring to the quest for a more realistic (and higher) fish consumption rate that would require stricter water standards.

Wilshusen has been advocating for a more protective fish consumption rate since the mid-1990s. She praises Inslee for raising the rate, but said all the moving parts to the governor’s plan, including running it through the legislature next year before it’s actually implemented, make its success far from certain.

“It’s like when you were a kid and ordered something from the back of a comic book,” Wilshusen said. “And when the envelope comes in the mail, you open it and say, ‘Hey! It didn’t look like that.’”

After 25 years of work, she said, “What we got this week is disappointing.”

Kevin Taylor writes from Spokane, Washington, where he does not eat the fish.