The Washington state Department of Ecology has known since the 1990s that its water-pollution limits mean some Washingtonians regularly consume dangerous amounts of toxic chemicals in fish from local waterways.
The problem lies in Ecology’s estimate of how much fish people eat. The lower the amount, the more water pollution Ecology can legally allow. So by assuming that people eat the equivalent of just one fish meal per month, Ecology is able to set less stringent pollution limits.
At least twice, Ecology has been told by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to fix the problem. Ecology was close to doing that last year – until Boeing and other business interests launched an intense lobbying campaign aimed at the agency, the state Legislature and then-Gov. Chris Gregoire. That’s the picture that emerges from recent interviews as well as government documents obtained by InvestigateWest under the Washington Public Records Act.
While who eats how much contaminated fish is a much-debated corner of science, most of the parties involved in the dispute in Washington contend that the current fish-consumption rate is too low. The figure came from a 1973-74 federal study that asked consumers to fill out food diaries for three days, according to the EPA.
The state Department of Health advises people to eat fish twice a week, and some members of Indian tribes, immigrants and other fishermen eat locally caught seafood even more often than that.
Boeing met with Gregoire
The Boeing Co. looms large in this issue. Last June, Boeing said if Ecology went ahead with plans to make fish safer to eat, it would “cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars and severely hamper its ability to increase production in Renton and make future expansion elsewhere in the state cost-prohibitive,” according to a Gregoire aide’s reconstruction of a conversation with a Boeing executive.
In July, Ecology announced it would not go forward with a new rule to adjust the fish-eating estimate as planned. Instead the agency launched a “stakeholder process” that would delay any new rules for at least two years. This week that process plodded on in Spokane, where state and local government officials and others spent more than three hours discussing the many contaminants that for years have prompted official state warnings against eating Washington fish too frequently.
Several environmental groups and tribes are boycotting the process, saying it’s unnecessary.
“All we’ve seen is delay,” said Bart Mihailovich of the Spokane Riverkeeper environmental group, one of several that have refused to participate in the new series of meetings. “Why are we going back and doing what was already done?”
Ecology had at least one other false start in fixing the rules, back in the mid-1990s, an effort that petered out even before a rule change was proposed, said Melissa Gildersleeve, the Ecology manager overseeing the current process.
Gildersleeve said Ecology had hoped last year to estimate a more realistic fish consumption rate as part of a process to update rules on how toxic sediments must be managed. But a storm of protest from industry and local government officials who operate sewage-treatment plants convinced the agency to slow down, she said. The sediment rules went into effect without changing the fish-consumption estimate.
“In July 2012 our director realized that this was going to be incredibly controversial and that people wanted to talk about how that new fish consumption rate would be implemented,” Gildersleeve said.
Ecology emails show that by midsummer, the agency had already been trying for months to assure Boeing and other business interests that it was coming up with “implementation rules” that would make it easier to comply with the new pollution limits. Boeing discharges wastewater into Western Washington waterways, including the Duwamish River.
Among the ideas floated was allowing businesses up to 50 years to reduce their toxic pollution loads. Such “variances” of up to 40 years still are under consideration, Gildersleeve said in an interview last week.
It’s clear from internal emails obtained by InvestigateWest that Ecology staffers were hearing a lot from industry in the run-up to changing course. For example, the head of the agency, Ted Sturdevant, commented on a Forbes article that identified Washington as one of the top states likely to boom over the next five years.
“Not if we pass new fish consumption rates! At least according to industry,” Sturdevant wrote to co-workers.
Environmentalists and Indian tribes had hoped for a new start when Gov. Jay Inslee came into office this year. But so far Inslee, who chose Sturdevant as his executive director for legislative affairs and policy, has been silent on the issue. And Inslee’s legal affairs coordinator, Susan Beatty, has failed to produce documents requested by InvestigateWest under the Public Records Act that could shed light on Gregoire’s dealings with business representatives and others on the issue.
Emails from the governor’s office turned over by Ecology, however, hint at the political pressure that Boeing was exercising. Correspondence between former Ecology director Sturdevant and Gregoire aides is replete with references to Boeing’s stance on the issue, and the subject line of one email is “Albaugh,” a reference to Jim Albaugh, CEO of Boeing’s Commercial Airplanes Division.
“The rhetoric from the Boeing Company on this topic is becoming increasing severe and Jim is expected to raise the issue,” Gregoire lieutenant Keith Phillips wrote June 19 to Sturdevant just before Gregoire’s meeting with the Boeing executive.
Boeing representatives didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Local governments, businesses fought for delay
Businesses and local governments are nervous about what might result from Washington re-estimating the fish consumption rates, in part because Oregon already has boosted its rate and that looks likely to cost many millions, said Chris McCabe, executive director of the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association.
His trade group commissioned a study of Oregon paper mills’ likely costs under the new rates and calculated it would cost that industry $500 million to make the switchover, plus $30 million to $90 million annually in operations costs. And even then it would not necessarily mean the industry was meeting what are expected to be very tight pollution limits, McCabe said.
Gary Chandler, chief lobbyist for the Association of Washington Business and a former legislator, met several times with Gregoire, her aides or Ecology director Sturdevant on the issue, he said. His message: Don’t tighten water-quality standards until there is technology available to meet the new standards.
“Let’s make sure that whatever standard you come up with is attainable,” Chandler said he told the governor and others. “If you set a standard that is 10 times, 15 times, five times the present standard, how are you going to meet it?”
One of the companies opposing Ecology’s effort to adjust the fish-eating rate is Inland Empire Paper Co., which is owned by the Cowles Co., the parent company of The Spokesman-Review. On the paper company’s behalf, attorney James Tupper wrote to Ecology on Jan. 18, 2012, to criticize a technical document, saying it “provides a superficial analysis of complex scientific issues and a number of policy determinations that are not appropriate for a technical guidance document.” A representative of the paper company also met with Ecology director Sturdevant in February 2012.
Local governments also fought for a delay. Like the pulp and paper industry, they are worried about tighter pollution limits because municipal sewage treatment plants are a major source of pollutants.
“This could all be very, very expensive and there are a lot of questions about what could be the impact,” said Carl Schroeder, a lobbyist for the Association of Washington Cities. “We’re not saying ‘Don’t do this.’ We’re just saying we all want to know what’s expected and how we’re going to pay for it.”
Cities like Spokane might well have to pay more to treat waste. Just last week lawyers for Spokane County were in state administrative court with environmental groups that challenged Ecology’s permit for the county’s year-old, $173 million wastewater treatment plant. Nina Bell of Northwest Environmental Advocates was part of the work group that dealt with tightening Oregon’s fish-consumption formula and is the only environmentalist still working through Washington’s process.
She said Oregon’s process focused heavily on loopholes to allow businesses leeway and that she sees Washington looking for even more of those loopholes. She called Ecology’s approach “a wholesale attack on the water quality program in the hopes of quote ‘getting buy-in’ from industry.”
Since Ecology changed course last year, environmentalists and Indian tribes have repeatedly called for the federal EPA to step in and take over Washington’s process.
The EPA plans to meet next month with representatives of tribes as well as Ecology’s new director, Maia Bellon, said Angela Chung, water quality standards unit manager for the EPA in Seattle. But the EPA does not plan to take over the state’s process, she said.
“We think that even with knowing the long history of commitments that have been made and the frustration with how slow the state has been, at least from the tribal perspective, we think the process the state has identified is one we want to support,” Chung said.