State officials are holding a public meeting in Spokane Valley Wednesday to talk about how much fish and shellfish Washington residents eat.
It’s a seemingly simple question, with far-reaching implications for how tough the state’s water quality laws must be to protect human health.
“This is an issue that touches families and everyone who wants to put a line in the water,” said Jerry White Jr., of Spokane Riverkeeper. “Up and down the Spokane River, people are catching fish and eating those fish.”
But health advisories caution people to limit the number of fish they eat from the Spokane River and other state water bodies, White noted. The advisories are in place to help people reduce their exposure to mercury and other toxins in fish tissue.
For years, Washington based its water quality standards on national fish consumption averages, which assumed that state residents ate 6.5 grams of fish daily – a portion about the size of a saltine cracker. That was a lowball average for a state whose borders include the Pacific Ocean and the lower Columbia River, where tribes have ancient fishing traditions and where 15 percent of the population considers themselves anglers.
The state’s new draft rule assumes that Washington residents eat 175 grams of fish daily, or about one-third of a pound. The draft rule, developed by the state Department of Ecology, seeks to protect human health while giving cities and businesses realistic options for meeting stricter water quality standards, according to an agency news release.
The draft rule is the second for the Ecology Department. The agency withdrew an earlier plan, which was criticized by Northwest tribes and environmental groups as not providing enough protections against increased cancer risk for people who eat lots of fish.
Based on the delay, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped in last year to craft its own clean-water rule for Washington. That proposed rule is also based on people eating 175 grams of fish daily.
The Spokane Riverkeeper, the Puget Soundkeeper and other water alliance groups prefer the EPA’s proposed rule to the state’s. The EPA rule has tougher standards for mercury and cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls, also known as PCBs – two of the toxins most likely to lead to fish advisories for state waters, said Amelia Apfel, a Puget Soundkeeper spokeswoman.
In March, the groups sued the EPA in an effort to get the federal agency to finalize its proposed rule for Washington. If the state remains in the lead, the groups are concerned there will be long delays in getting stricter water quality laws enacted, Apfel said.
“We know there is political pressure on the Department of Ecology,” she said. “They’re facing a lot of pressure from industry.”
The prospect of tougher regulations is a contentious one for Washington manufacturers, who could be required to invest millions of dollars in new pollution controls. In state legislative hearings, some lawmakers said they feared the new rule would put Washington at a competitive disadvantage for recruiting and retaining businesses.
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