How much risk of cancer from eating fish is too much? Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has privately advanced a proposal that would likely pass legal muster but that worries Indian tribes and environmentalists. It would allow a tenfold increase in allowable cancer risk under the law.
It’s either that, the governor has told a panel of his advisers, or the state will have to consider regulatory breaks for polluters that it has not traditionally granted in the past. For example: giving factories, municipal sewage treatment plants and others who dump pollution into waterways 20 years or perhaps even more to come into compliance with new toxic-waste limits.
Caught in crossfire between Indian tribes and business interests, Inslee stepped into the controversy last spring after his predecessor, Christine Gregoire, short-circuited plans by the state Ecology Department to make water pollution rules more protective of people who eat a lot of fish. Gregoire’s move came a day after the former governor met with a senior Boeing Co. executive who strongly objected to tighter restrictions on toxic pollution.
Inslee’s first step was to organize a panel of advisers, including business and tribal officials. It was in front of that group in February that the governor laid out the choices as he saw them, according to several people who attended the meeting.
Now Inslee is on the verge of handing down orders to the state Ecology Department on how to proceed. It’s a decision fraught with political tension as Inslee has allies both in the tribes and in business.
“The governor came into this issue, inherited it, hearing both that this is going to kill business and hearing this is necessary to protect Washington citizens who are heavy fish consumers,” said Ted Sturdevant, who first pushed the tighter limits as director of Ecology and is now Inslee’s chief adviser on the issue. “He’s been looking for a path that does both — that protects people who eat a lot of fish and that doesn’t kill the economy.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has repeatedly told Washington that the state must fix its system for regulating water pollution under the federal Clean Water Act.
What needs fixing is the fish consumption rate: an official state estimate of how much fish people eat and a key part of Washington’s formula for deciding how much pollution is allowed. The more fish people consume, the more exposure they face to water-borne pollutants, and the less pollution can be discharged into waterways under the Clean Water Act.
The fish-consumption estimate Washington uses is based on a national study conducted in 1973 and 1974. According to that study, and in the current state calculations, Washingtonians eat less than half a pound of fish per month, about one serving. In reality, many eat more in a single meal. Starting in the 1990s, more-rigorous studies of Northwest Indian tribes found fish consumption rates of 30 pounds per month or more among the highest consumers in the Suquamish Tribe, for example, where even the average consumer eats 14 pounds a month. Other groups, such as sport fishers and immigrant communities, are also known to eat fish in excess of the state estimate.
Critics of Washington’s one-meal-per-month figure point to Oregon, which in 2011 adjusted its rate to 11 pounds per month, or roughly one fish meal per day, making it the strictest standard in the nation.
Following Oregon’s lead, Sturdevant as director of Ecology in 2011 began a process to correct Washington’s fish-consumption estimate. Vigorous protests from business and influential members of the Legislature failed to stop the rulemaking process by spring 2012. But when Boeing took its complaint all the way to the governor, Gregoire told Ecology to go back to the drawing board.
Tribes protested. Inslee personally stepped into the controversy, tapping a panel of prominent business, tribal and municipal officials to try to reach agreement on a path forward.
Ten months later, that hasn’t happened. And in the interim, environmentalists filed suit in federal court seeking to force the federal EPA to force action by the state or take over the whole process.
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, could also be affected by a higher rate. So could Spokane city and county, which struggle with PCB pollution in wastewater and storm runoff.
Businesses and local governments rightly point out that wastewater technology is not currently available to meet the strict water-quality standards that would result if Washington adopts a fish consumption rate as high as Oregon’s.
To environmentalists and Indian tribes, that’s not the point. They rightly point out that the Clean Water Act has often required industry and others under its regulation to set a standard to protect public health and rely on that standard to drive technological innovation. That way, at least eventually, even heavy fish consumers are protected, they argue.
At a meeting at the governor’s office in early February, according to several of those who attended, the governor laid out two options, both of which lessen the potential burden on polluters:
• Boost the estimate of how much fish Washingtonians are eating, but alter another pivotal part of the formula used to set pollution limits: the additional cancer risk from eating fish that is considered acceptable. Traditionally Ecology has set that at one additional cancer case for every 1 million people exposed to a given pollutant. That number could be set at one in 100,000 instead, Inslee suggested, and remain within legal bounds.
• Keep the traditional limit of one-in-1 million increased cancer risk, but take steps to help pollution dischargers. This could include giving them variances from the rules; allowing them years or even decades to reduce pollution; or other alternatives.
Business and local governments argue that they are unfairly targeted by the Clean Water Act. Pollution from factories and sewage plants has already been ratcheted down substantially since the landmark legislation was adopted in 1972. Nowadays, quite a bit of pollution flowing into Washington waterways comes from the foul mix that flows off streets, parking lots and other hard surfaces during rainstorms.
Tribal interests, nevertheless, are growing impatient at the Ecology Department’s drawn-out process.
“It’s really concerning to me,” said Jim Peters of the Squaxin Island Tribe. “It seems like they have no problem having heavy fish consumers have a higher risk of getting cancer than other people.”