OLYMPIA – Legislators grappled Thursday with a seemingly small question that has a big impact on Washington’s pollution laws: How much fish do people eat?
The answer will affect water pollution standards on many state waterways and the companies that must meet those standards because some of the pollution ends up in fish. How much fish people eat can determine the risk for some cancers and other diseases.
The question is more complicated than it sounds, Kelly Susewind of the Department of Ecology told the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee. Some groups, particularly Native Americans, eat more fish than others, and some people don’t eat any. Fish that spend their entire lives in a polluted river like the Spokane pick up more pollution than salmon, which are born in fresh water, live in salt water for much of their lives, then return to fresh water. Salmon that spend most of their lives in the Puget Sound can have as much as five times the polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, a known carcinogen, as salmon that spawn in coastal streams and live most of their lives in the Pacific.
So a person who only eats the highly touted Copper River salmon, which comes from Alaska and is only available a short time each year, would have less risk than someone who eats salmon from Puget Sound? asked Committee Chairman Doug Erickson, R-Ferndale. Yes, Susewind said, but the standards aren’t being set to take that into account.
There is no statewide study of how much fish people eat and where it comes from, so the department is primarily using studies of tribes that primarily eat locally caught fish, he said.
Recent surveys indicate people on the Colville Confederated Tribes reservation eat about 400 grams of fish a day, Gary Passmore, the tribes’ environmental trust director, said Wednesday at a conference in Spokane. Rates are similar for tribal and nontribal members.
Current state pollution standards assume people eat 6.5 grams of fish per day. That’s a piece about the size of a saltine cracker, said Sen. Marilyn Chase, D-Shoreline. The department is considering the effects of assuming they eat 125 grams, about a quarter pound; 175 grams, about a third of a pound; or 225 grams, about a half pound, and estimating the potential increase in cancers.
Some senators worried businesses that currently meet pollution levels set to a consumption of 6.5 grams per day could struggle to reduce their pollution levels at those higher rates. Erickson said the higher rates would put Washington at a “competitive disadvantage with South Carolina for manufacturing” – a not-so-veiled reference to fears that Boeing would build new factories or move existing ones to that state if fish consumption rates get set too high. South Carolina’s estimate is 17.5 grams per day, but each state’s geography, waterways and consumption patterns are different, Susewind said.
But Chase said the state should set standards that protect future generations: “I’m offended to think we would hold our water-quality standards hostage to manufacturers.”
Boeing isn’t the only company closely watching the fish consumption rate debate. Inland Empire Paper Co., which is owned by the same company that owns The Spokesman-Review, spokesman.com and KHQ-TV, could also be affected by a higher rate. So could Spokane city and county, which struggle with PCB pollution in wastewater and storm runoff.
There’s no proposed legislation yet for new standards. At Wednesday’s conference in Spokane, Rick Eichstaedt, attorney for Spokane Riverkeeper, said the state has a history of continued delay on more accurate fish consumption rates, which he called a civil rights and environmental justice issue.
“It’s not OK to force a higher cancer rate on Native Americans, persons of color or the poor,” who eat more fish than the general public, he said.
An alliance of environmental groups and commercial fishing interests filed a federal lawsuit last month to force the federal government to make the state update its consumption rates and comply with the Clean Water Act. That puts more pressure on the EPA to get involved if the Legislature continues to delay.