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Olympia’s industrial run-off regulation hubbub: Much ado about nothing?

A pollock processing line in Alaska where observers monitor for any salmon bycatch. Credit: Photo: NOAA Fisheries

A coalition of labor leaders slammed an expected tightening of water-quality standards on industrial discharge in Washington state at an Olympia press conference Monday, contending those measures will shut down plants and eliminate jobs.

"The policy out in front is too extreme. It's impractical,” said Chip Elliott, vice president of the Washington Machinists Council.

There’s just one problem: Though an effort to design tightened standards has been underway for several months, Gov. Jay Inslee's administration has not yet proposed any specific plans for doing so.

"They are reacting to something that doesn't exist," said Inslee spokesman David Postman.

At issue are the levels of industrial pollutants that should be discharged into the state's waters – a balancing act between increasing the level of carcinogens in local seafood and the feasibility for industry players of complying with new, tighter standards.  

Currently federal limits assume that a person eats slightly more than a half-ounce of fish a day. In Washington, that number is just a quarter-ounce of fish each day — roughly the weight of a saltine cracker. The risk of getting cancer from a quarter-ounce of waste-exposed fish is roughly one in 1 million.

The diet of the average Puget Sound Native American though includes about a quarter-pound of fish a day, the equivalent weight of a good-sized hamburger. A study of Pacific Islanders living in Puget Sound showed the same fish consumption.

Inslee's Department of Ecology isn't expected to make recommendations on new standards until several weeks from now. Those recommendations will be subject to public review and a public hearing before they’re sent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for final approval.

The issue has been a contentious one among members of the Washington Legislature in the past. Boeing’s 2013 contention that stricter requirements would force them to make expensive upgrades was a factor in the Legislature’s budget deadlock that year – a disagreement that almost closed down much of state government. The Department of Ecology's recommendations will not be subject to legislative approval.

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