New water standards may spare Boeing

Sen. Doug Ericksen

Unless Washington goes with the most extreme option, water-quality targets based on fish consumption studies should spare Boeing any troubles in the next few years. That assessment came from a state official on Thursday.

The water-quality issue is taking on new urgency amid concerns that the Boeing Co. will put assembly of a planned new 777X airliner elsewhere. In last spring's legislative session, the Boeing Co. expressed concerns about an upcoming change in state regulations on the level of pollutants that industrial facilities are allowed to discharge into the water. Boeing contended stricter discharge requirements could lead to expensive upgrades to discharge systems.

Thirty-six states have their own specific standards on carcinogen-laced discharges and fish consumption. Washington is currently one of 14 states without with such standards — meaning the state follows federal limits set in 1992. Washington is in the preliminary stage of putting together its own standards and rules on this subject.

Boeing sought a study on the numbers and types of fish consumed in Washington, and an accounting of who caught the fish and where. House Democrats wanted the new regulations installed in part because of concerns about discharges potentially affecting the health of the fish eaten by local tribes, whose diets are heavily fish-oriented.

This is a satellite issue in Washington trying to convince Boeing to manufacture the new 777X airliner in the state. However, Boeing's main wishes were an $8.7 billion tax exemption package, which it got, and its biggest union accepting cuts in pensions and benefits, which it did not get. Now, other states are wooing Boeing.

Right now, legislators are wrestling with how strict Washington's quality standards should be for discharges' effects on water quality. Should the new standard be stricter than the feds'? Should Washington's standards be attuned to tribes that eat lots of fish or to a statewide average of fish consumption? What are acceptable odds on increased cancer risks?

On Thursday, Kelly Susewind, manager of the Washington Department of Ecology's water quality program, briefed the Washington Senate's Energy & Environment Committee on potential regulatory targets.

Currently, the federal limits are based on assuming that a person eats slightly more than a half-ounce of fish a day. Washington's current standards assume that a Washingtonian eats a quarter-ounce of fish a day — less than the federal assumption and roughly the weight a saltine cracker. The risk of getting cancer from a quarter-ounce of waste-exposed fish is roughly one in 1 million.

If the state tailors its standards to an average of the fish eaten by three Puget Sound tribes, the proposed standards would assume each person would eat a quarter-pound of fish a day, the equivalent weight of a good-size hamburger. A study of Pacific Islanders living in Puget Sound showed the same fish consumption, Susewind said. He added that if the standards focus on assuring the safety of the tribes' consumptions, almost everyone else in Washington would also be categorized as eating fish at a safe level.

Another possible approach is Oregon's. Oregon based its standard on someone eating one-third pound of fish a day. The most extreme standards — which would trigger near-future Boeing discharge improvements, Susewind said — that the ecology department found in the United States assumed a person eats a half-pound of fish a day.

After the briefing, Susewind said the assumptions that a person eats a quarter-pound or a third of a pound of fish a day should not affect the permitting of Boeing's current discharges at its Renton, Everett and Frederickson plants — with the caveat that increasing those assumption could provide foundations for future additional efforts to increase standards. And those could require fix-it work.

Boeing's discharges are within the state's standards on PCBs, mercury and arsenic, Susewind said. The corporation is having trouble with copper and zinc discharges harming fish, but not at levels that would affect humans, he said.

At the briefing, committee chairman Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, and Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, questioned linking industrial discharge standards to small, fuzzy cancer risk numbers.

"It seems," Sheldon said, "that you can never definitely define this so people can know what's there. The science isn't there. … It could cost [industries] billions. Billions!"

Referring to two states seeking the 777X work, Ericksen said: "Why should Washington put itself at a competitive disadvantage to South Carolina or Kansas in getting jobs?"

Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, retorted: "I'm offended that our water quality is being held hostage to South Carolina. … I want the committee to use standards for our great-grandchildren instead of a few manufacturers."

The Ecology Department will have a draft set of options ready in early 2014, setting the stage for the next part of this debate. At least untll then, assumptions about fish consumption will be weighed carefully.

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