October 12, 2013 in Region

Washington fish consumption estimates trigger lawsuit

Gene Johnson Associated Press

SEATTLE – A fight over how much fish people eat in Washington – and thus, how much toxic pollution they consume – is now in federal court.

Conservation and commercial fishing groups sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday, saying the agency has for too long let state officials underestimate fish consumption, resulting in weaker anti-pollution standards than are needed to protect the public.

The groups reason that if the estimates were more realistic, the state would have to more strictly regulate emissions of mercury, lead, copper and other toxins – a prospect that concerns industry groups and that emerged as a sticking point in budget talks in Olympia last spring.

Businesses must obtain permits before they can discharge pollutants into the state’s waters under the federal Clean Water Act, and increasing the estimate of how much fish people eat could result in those permits becoming more restrictive.

The state Ecology Department has worked for years on updating the fish consumption estimates, but Janette Brimmer, an attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice, which filed the lawsuit, said it has amounted only to so much dithering. EPA’s failure to make the state update its consumption estimates violates the Clean Water Act, she said.

The EPA could not be reached for comment because of the federal government shutdown.

Washington’s estimate is that average fish consumption amounts to just 8 ounces – roughly one fillet – per person, per month. That figure originally came from federal guidelines published in 1990, but the EPA began backing away from that more than a decade ago and urging states to adopt more realistic estimates.

Surveys show that actual fish consumption rates in Washington are vastly higher.

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