Northwest tribes had mixed reaction to Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s plan for dealing with water pollutants and their presence in fish after he raised the consumption level to 175 grams per month, up from 6.5, to reflect the fact that many people eat fish daily that they catch themselves.
On one hand, said the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, the consumption rise was good. But on the other hand the commission was “deeply concerned” about the potential resulting tenfold increase in the cancer risk rate, given that the drop in toxics needed to offset the loss in protection will not be enacted until state legislation is put through in the next session.
“At issue is a state pollution-control formula that bases the amount of water pollution permitted on how much fish people are thought to be eating, an estimate known as the fish consumption rate,” the journalism foundation InvestigateWest.com explained. “So the less fish people eat, the more pollution can be allowed.”
The Fisheries Commission was not convinced that health was the starting point for the changes, which are part of the state’s efforts to comply with Clean Water Act rules.
“This is a political decision, not one based on sound science,” said Lorraine Loomis, vice chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and fisheries manager for the Swinomish Tribe, in a statement. “While a toxics control effort is needed, it is not an effective replacement for strong water quality rules and standards. We cannot continue with a pollution-based economy.”
The Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission reacted in kind.
"Tribal communities rely upon fish for subsistence and will bear the burden of today’s proposal," the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission said in a statement.
Inslee said he had worked hard to create a balance between economic, environmental and health needs, and that they were in fact different aspects of the same thing. Too often the issue has been viewed as a “choice between protecting human health and protecting our economy,” he said at a press conference on July 9 announcing the changes. “I reject that choice because both choices are essential to the State of Washington and to our future. It's not an either-or…. It is not a binary calculation.”
Under his plan, the state’s water quality standards will be updated “to be more protective of those who consume 175 grams of fish per day—an increase from one serving per month to one serving per day,” he said in a statement, adding that his proposal will go beyond the parameters of the 40-year-old Clean Water Act. “In fact, of the 96 chemicals regulated under the rule, about 70 percent will have new, more protective standards.”
The problem word for the tribes was “will,” because the fine points of the plan will be pounded out in the state legislature, while the new consumption guidelines go into effect immediately—or are already in effect, inasmuch as they reflect current practices and eating habits.
Loomis said that tribes will meet among themselves as well as with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, whose requirements sparked the changes, to examine the proposal.