A Fishy Standard For Washington State Water Quality, But It Could Be Even Worse

A Fishy Standard For Washington State Water Quality, But It Could Be Even Worse
A recently finalized state fish consumption rule aims to protect heavy fish eaters from emissions in local waters, but it is based on questionable assumptions. A federal version of the rule is even more onerous, say critics. Seen here is Puget Sound. Photo: Matt Rosenberg.

The Washington Department of Ecology last week approved new state fish consumption and water quality standards that critics say are too onerous and based on bad methodology. Worse, they say, the rule could be made even more stringent if it is superseded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Although the outlines of the debate have been clear in recent months and years, the formal adoption of the rule last week by Ecology hints at the approaching endgame. Now, EPA will have until mid-November to either sign-off on the state rule or formally propose it’s own tougher version.

The updated version of the state fish consumption rule now is tailored to the most at-risk Washington individuals. According to Ecology, at-risk individuals may eat up to 175 grams of locally-caught fish per day on average. That is 27 times more than the projected average daily consumption for the general population, for whom the previous standard was intended.

The controversial rule also aims to uphold a one-in-a-million cancer risk rate to protect these heavy eaters of locally caught fish. Previously that same rate had applied, but had been based on expected average fish consumption across the whole population of 6.5 grams per day.

When projected daily fish consumption ceilings were hiked to 175 grams for the new rule, Ecology originally proposed to lower the cancer risk standard to one-in-100,000. For fish consumers the difference in the two risk rates is marginal because both are effectively near zero, yet the cost difference to employers and governments targeted for compliance is significant.

The rule is also problematic because the state’s own data show that some of the most at-risk populations consume nowhere near the amount of fish that are projected.

Not So At-Risk, After All?

The Ecology report also estimated 140,000 to 380,000 Washington adults are considered “high fish consumers” who eat 250 grams of fish a day. As Lens has reported, that cohort is no more than five percent of Washington’s 7.2 million residents. This estimate does not include how much of the 250 grams are fish caught locally. There is no estimate on what percentage of fish eaten in Washington by “high fish consumers” is locally locally caught and self caught.

However, there is data for one tribe, the Tulalip. According to a 2013 Ecology report, between 72 to 88 percent of all fish consumed by members of the Tulalip Tribes in Snohomish County is harvested locally, but the age-adjusted median consumption rate for all fish by Tulalips was 53 grams per day for men and even lower for women. The figure for Tulalip men is just 30 percent of the projected daily allotment for at-risk populations, which drives the new standard.

Dueling Fish Consumption Rules

Ecology’s administrative rule on fish consumption will ultimately require approval by the EPA. Complicating matters, EPA has its own draft version of a fish consumption rule specifically developed for Washington, which it may force upon Ecology.

The Ecology rule differs from that of EPA by maintaining but not raising the existing compliance bar on certain chemicals such as PCBs and mercury. Ecology also provides variances and compliance scheduling to help industry and governments, while still allowing them to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit under the Federal Clean Water Act.

Both new standards would require many industrial facilities and municipal wastewater treatment plants to upgrade their emissions control technology in order to detect even smaller traces of chemicals in the water they use, before it is discharged back to adjacent waterways.

State Rule Preferred By Employers, Cities

Industry groups, municipalities and state lawmakers say that the feds should adopt the state rule because its regulatory approach and compliance schedule are more reasonable.

However, in February, the environmental group Puget SoundKeeper filed suit in federal court seeking to have the EPA standard preempt the state rule. Last week, a federal judge ruled that EPA must either adopt the state rule or issue a notice of final federal rulemaking by November 15. An EPA spokesperson said they are still reviewing the judge’s ruling, and declined further comment.

Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-42) is the chair of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee. He told Lens the EPA rule is “excessive and out of step with other regions,” though he also believes Ecology’s rule is too stringent as well.

He added the EPA approach threatens to put Washington at a competitive disadvantage with other states in attracting and retaining business. “Some companies might be forced to move, others may not come here,” he said.

The sentiment is shared by the committee vice chair, Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-35). He told Lens the costs of proposed EPA standards will unequally “fall on those (communities) that really can’t pay, and will lose more jobs.”

The EPA rule could particularly pack a financial punch for rural municipalities, which are already stretched to pay for basic infrastructure costs, Sheldon added. “They are really up against it in finding the funding to adequately address those concerns,” he said. “An increase in the standards is just going to have to come out of the pocketbooks of those citizens.”

Everett Would Pay, Dearly, If EPA Rule Chosen

Everett officials previously told Lens that complying with EPA’s draft rule could cost them an estimated $1 billion, in order to fully upgrade their wastewater treatment plant. In an email statement to Lens, City of Everett Communications Director Meghan Pembroke warned that “our ratepayers will ultimately bear the financial impacts of any new regulations.”

“It is our hope that the EPA will respect the needs of our state and not move forward with guidelines that could have an even greater impact than those proposed by DOE,” Pembroke wrote.

Ecology spokesperson Sandy Howard wrote in an email to Lens that “we continue to believe the state’s rule is best for Washington’s people and economy and that EPA should move swiftly to adopt our rule.”

Chris McCabe is the executive director of the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association (NWPPA), a regional trade association. He told Lens that the EPA rule is “purely aspirational. There’s nobody, government or private alike, that can meet the (EPA) water quality standards,” he said.

McCabe said that the political fight “really remains a state’s rights issue. The federal government is trying to bully the state into adopting what it wants,” he said. “That’s not a good outcome.”

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