State needs fix for outdated water quality standards

For the past 60 years, the growing body of Earth science has created an acute awareness about the impact that humankind is making on our planet. Realizing the finite nature of resources that sustain life on Earth, people have gradually warmed to the idea of applying ecologically sound practices to personal and commercial behavior.

Not everyone has fully embraced the concept of sustainable living, however, so tensions rise between those who advocate for stricter regulations to pull us back from the precipice of environmental doom, and those happy to go on polluting in short-sighted oblivion.

As always, the best path lies somewhere between the extremes.

The state Department of Ecology should aim for this middle ground in finally revising its water pollution standards, which are woefully out of date.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 (CWA) established a national goal to reduce the presence of toxic substances in surface waters, such as rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands and the ocean.

The CWA set limits for the concentration of toxic substances, such as mercury, in the water without creating a human health risk. Those limits take into account how much fish people consume, because carnivorous fish such as salmon absorb and accumulate lethal methylmercury.

After a 1980 nationwide survey, the Environmental Protection Agency determined the U.S. fish consumption rate at 6.5 grams per day. Washington and many other states incorporated that rate into its water quality standards. And it inexplicably remains at that same level today, despite pressure from the EPA to revise water quality standards every three years as dictated by the CWA.

It’s a shameful abrogation of responsibility to the health of Washington residents that the Department of Ecology attempted to remedy last year. It proposed increasing the state fish consumption rate to reflect real-world eating habits.

Unfortunately, Ecology alarmed the business community by proposing a jump from 6.5 grams per day to a range of about 160 to 270. That would take Washington from one of the lowest fish consumers in the nation – ridiculous for a state known for wild salmon – to the highest at the top of that range.

As The Olympian reported recently, in an article by InvestigateWest, a nonprofit investigative journalism center, former Gov. Chris Gregoire nixed DOE’s plan after intense lobbying from Boeing and other business interests.

Industry made the argument that such a high estimate would require significant and costly upgrades for businesses and municipal sewage discharge systems, such as the LOTT Clean Water Alliance in Thurston County. In some cases, the technology doesn’t even exist to meet such a high standard.

The state of Oregon updated its fish consumption rate in 2011 to 175 grams per day, which equates to about six ounces of fish, a normal size serving. That may still seem high to some, even though subsistence fishers and tribal members may consume that much or more.

The state Department of Health recommends eating two servings of fish per week. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, the U.S. average fish consumption rate has been slightly declining since 2006, although it remains about 20 percent higher than 1980.

The Department of Ecology must provide a realistic fish consumption estimate. It is obligated to do so, and Gregoire was wrong to intervene. The state needs large employers to keep our economic recovering going, but that does not justify obviously inaccurate fish consumption rates.

With an accurate number, Ecology can work transparently with tribes, conversation groups and business to devise an implementation strategy – perhaps one phased in over many years – that strikes a balanced, middle ground.