Editorial: Stop Using Fish-Consumption Rate as Proxy for Water Quality

Seattle Times Editorial, October 25, 2013, Seattle Times

A FEW weeks ago, this page commented on the cleanup of sediment in the Duwamish River. In the conflict over the cleanup goal, our position was that the goal must be achievable — and that the people expected to pay for the cleanup should reasonably be able to do it. A similar position makes sense regarding water quality for Washington’s rivers.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, river water should be clean enough so that people can eat the fish. For some rivers, that’s a goal that will take a while. Regarding, say, liver cancer from ingesting PCBs, there will be some risk, even one in a million. The question becomes: How much risk based on how much consumption of fish?

In 1992, regulators assumed that people ate less than half a pound of fish a month from local rivers. Later, Oregon surveyed Native Americans and immigrants and reset the assumption at 12 pounds a month. In 2011, it plugged this 27-fold increase into a formula it had, and the result was a standard not currently possible to meet.

Oregon hasn’t enforced its standard yet, but industry and municipalities worry about it. In some cases, the discharge is supposed to be purer than the river.

“You end up with numbers that are not realistic,” says John Ledger, vice president of Associated Oregon Industries. “But there they are, and the courts will uphold them.”

Washington’s discharge permits are still under the old standard, but the Department of Ecology is working on a new one, and has just been sued by environmental groups for being too slow. The department is under pressure to adopt Oregon’s standard. Industry here, led by Boeing, says Oregon’s standard is impossible.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency, which has oversight over Ecology, is reassuring: “Nobody is going to implement a water quality standard in a way that shuts down the ability of business to go forward,” says Dennis McLerran, EPA’s administrator here. “You will be able to get permits.”

Yes, industry replies, you will give us permits. But if your standard of cleanliness is so high that we cannot meet it for 30 or 40 years, environmental groups will sue us for failing to meet it. And, under the Clean Water Act, they will win.

This state should improve the quality of its rivers while keeping such things as paper mills, and not suffocating local governments under lawsuits. That means discharge standards should be attainable during the period of the permit. The standards should also be at a cost viable operations can reasonably pay.

As technology improves, standards can go up. And will.

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