News

Go Fish!

City recommends a cleaner standard for state waters

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

You can now safely eat a forkful of fish each week—mostly because the state proposes to fudge the meaning of “safe” by an order of magnitude.

The debate on fish consumption carries deep ironies. Nutritionists say fish and shellfish are part of a healthy diet and should be consumed regularly. But clinicians and oncologists warn that toxic chemicals that can build up in the flesh of aquatic life can increase the risk of certain diseases like cancer.

The state uses the fish consumption rate to determine how much pollution to allow in our waters. The rate is supposed to protect us from more than 100 toxins that can make us sick. Washington’s rate is also one of the lowest in the country, despite having a population of proudly voracious consumers of wild fish—another deep irony.

The state is required by the Clean Water Act and U.S. Environmental Policy Agency rules to set standards so that people are protected—so that people can eat fish and shellfish in the amounts they would normally eat. Balancing health against the costs of cleanup and impacts to the economy, the State of Washington thinks you eat about 6.5 grams of fish or shellfish a day, which is one 8-ounce fillet a month.

Yet studies indicate Washingtonians eat much more fish than this, in some cases up to 30 times more, exposing them to much greater risks from toxins. Recreational and commercial fishing communities are also at higher risk from Washington’s weak standards. Washington’s standards should at least match those of Oregon, a coalition of public interest groups such as the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance argue.

Last fall, the office of the governor and the state Dept. of Ecology released a preliminary draft rule that proposes standards for how clean our waters need to be, and would control pollution limits for businesses and municipalities that discharge wastewater. To the concern of many, the rule balances an increase in fish consumption with a higher tolerance of cancer rates.

“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, a former director of Ecology who is Gov. Jay Inslee’s chief advisor 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 proposed rule would increase the fish consumption rate but would also increase the ‘acceptable’ risk of developing cancer, called the cancer risk rate,” North Sound Baykeeper Wendy Steffesen explained. “These two equations are intended to work together to limit the amount of toxic pollution allowable in Washington waters. But increasing the protectiveness of one, while decreasing the other is sleight-of-hand math that accomplishes virtually nothing in the end.”

The proposed rule would extend the allowable cancer risk rate from 1 incident of increased cancer risk in a population of 1 million to an incidence of 1 in a population of 100,000, a tenfold increase.

“Our government has an obligation to protect us and our water from dangerous pollution, not play politics to skirt around the issue,” Steffensen said. “The standards to protect families from mercury and PCBs, two of the most long-lived and toxic chemicals in our waters, have not increased at all. This continues to put our youngest generations at risk.

“The new rule also makes it more likely that industry will be granted permission to exceed these standards, thereby allowing potent neurotoxins and cancer-causing pollutants to remain at current levels,” Steffensen said.

Steffensen urged Bellingham City Council to comment on the proposed rule before the comment period ended this month. Bellingham City Council agreed, unanimously approving a draft letter this week.

The letter, penned by City Council member Michael Lilliquist, supports the governor’s comprehensive approach to improving water quality, including reducing toxic chemicals in consumer products, an emphasis on addressing water quality problems at the source, and legislative actions to identify priority toxins and develop a chemical action plan.

”We strongly support the upward revision of the fish consumption rate to 175 grams per day, which is a more realistic number based on actual eating practices in our communities,” Lilliquist wrote on behalf of council. “We believe the higher fish consumption number is necessary to provide a solid basis for protecting human health. We note that even this number is low for some members of our community, particularly when considering traditional tribal eating customs, which Ecology’s own technical support documents show are often many hundreds of grams per day. For this reason, we believe a higher fish consumption number is important as a matter of social equity and justice for all members of our community.

“For the similar reasons, we have concerns about the loosening of the allowable cancer risk rate,” Lilliquist wrote. “Currently, Washington law defines the acceptable risk-based criteria for cancer as less than or equal to one in one million. The proposed new [criteria] would lower this standard, so that an additional lifetime cancer risk of one in 100,000 is considered acceptable,” he wrote. “We disagree with this change. By relaxing the cancer risk rate number, much of the benefit of increasing the fish consumption rate will be undermined, resulting in little if any improvement for carcinogen exposure from contaminated water.”

“We’ve heard a lot of concerns that we are allowing a higher input risk rate for cancer,” Ecology Director Maia Bellon commented when the study was released last fall. “But the actual risk is not higher. What matters to people and fish is not the formula but the outcome—it’s less about the complex formula going into the standard and more about the level of pollution coming out of the pipe.”

“Industry already benefits from various loopholes that excuse or delay compliance with water quality standards,” the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance responded in a letter to the governor. “These include toxic mixing zones, compliance schedules, variances, use attainability analyses, site-specific criteria, and water quality offsets. For example, toxic mixing zones are areas where industry and cities are allowed to discharge high levels of toxins in the hope they will be ‘mixed’ and ‘diluted’ in the water downstream. The most toxic chemicals cannot be effectively diluted. As Ecology’s own reports demonstrate, many dangerous toxins like PCBs, dioxins and mercury build up and accumulate in the fish we eat, sometimes many miles from the source.”

Lummi Nation and other tribal fishing communities continue their protest of what they consider weak standards by the state that impair their way of life.

“We are sensitive to the fact that many businesses in Washington have made substantial financial contributions to the state economy in particular, but also indirectly to the tribal economies,” Lummi Chairman Tim Ballew II wrote to the governor last April. “However, we feel it is morally wrong for business to profit at the expense of the environment and the associated health of of the members of our collective communities. Environmental laws and rules like the Water Quality Standards are intended to protect the health and welfare of our people, not just the bottom lines of corporations,” Ballew wrote.

The tribe recommended a fish consumption rate target of 918 grams per day, or nearly ten times the amount considered acceptable by Bellingham City Council, establishing a much higher standard for the cleanliness of state waters.

“In our opinion, this consumption rate is consistent with an environmental baseline that is achievable if we are successful in protecting and restoring the salmon and shellfish habitat,” Ballew noted.

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