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How much fish can a Washingtonian eat?

Can we clean up our waters enough to eat 175 grams of fish a day? Credit: Credit: hey skinny/Flickr

Olympia has a new number to fight over: 175.

That's the number (of grams of fish per day) state permitting officials will plug into a proposed – and extremely complicated – formula designed to help the state regulate industrial discharges into Washington's waters.

Gov. Jay Inslee unveiled the fish consumption number Wednesday along with the broad outline of a plan to regulate industrial discharges into the state's rivers, streams and bays. Needless to say, lots of eye-glazing details still have to be hammered out.

The weight of fish eaten daily is just one variable that will help lawmakers set limits on industrial discharges into state waterways. Some local corporations, Boeing chief among them, contend that raising the discharge standard significantly would make it too expensive to do business in Washington.

The current fish consumption standard is 6.5 grams per day. That’s roughly the weight of a saltine cracker or one fish meal every 27 days. The proposed standard of 175 grams per day translates into one fish meal per day. As a concession to industry fears that discharge targets might not be technologically feasible, Gov. Inslee proposes to increase the assumed likelihood of getting cancer from polluted fish from one in 1 million cases to one in 100,000 cases. (Like fish consumption, cancer-risk standard is another variable in the formula for industrial discharge levels.)

Inslee said an underlying concern is not to increase actual cancer risks with the revised likelihood of cancer and fish consumptions numbers. So if those new numbers are plugged into the new complicated master formula, and other variables show that an increased allowable pollution level leads to an actual increase in cancer cases, the new formula would not be used.
The state would look at the new and old formulas pertaining to an individual facility's discharge permit, and go with the one that has stricter health safeguards.

A key component in the discharge limit formula is how a human body absorbs and retains specific chemicals. So the final allowable discharge levels will vary chemical by chemical, and chemical combination by chemical combination. Increasing the fish consumption number will automatically make every discharge permit stricter.

"The bottom line is this,” said Gov. Inslee: “We are getting more protective, and in no instance will the real risk of cancer or any other harm go up. In fact, for 70 percent of these chemicals, the new standards will be more protective."

The governor dismissed past criticisms about stricter standards handicapping the state’s economy, because Wednesday was the first time his administration had floated a solid fish consumption number to study and debate.

Ted Sturdevant, Inslee's outgoing executive director for legislative policies, explained that the state hasn’t yet calculated a fish consumption figure for a so-called average Washingtonian. The current cancer-risk calculations are based on people in the highest risk categories, such as Native Americans and Pacific Islanders who eat fish that they catch themselves. (This is similar to the way air pollution regulations are based on high-risk groups such as people with asthma.)

At least one tribal representative believes the governor’s 175-gram-a-day consumption figure is too low. "My tribe eats over 800 grams of fish a day,” said Russ Hepfer, vice-chair of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, which is based in Port Angeles. "175 grams is a starting point. We think it should be higher."

The tribe, said Hepfer, had been frustrated for years because it did not know what fish consumption rates state government would propose. Now that the number is out there, he said, the tribe can work on getting the state to increase it.

The state health and ecology departments are supposed to use the 175-gram-a-day figure to map out proposed industrial discharge regulations by September. Gov. Inslee wants these and other proposed regulations ready for feedback and tweaking during the 2015 legislative session. The governor wants the Legislature’s buy in. But if the proposed regulations and legislation die in the session, inslee said he would make some sort of move. He declined to say what that move might be.

The proposed legislation includes individual facilities to seek variances on their industrial discharge permits. A variance would essentially give the facility a limited-time pass, while it brings itself into compliance. Details about how variances would be handled are still up in the air, but Maia Bellon, director of the Washington Department of Ecology, said that practices will be put in place to prevent businesses from stalling or gaming the system.

The federal Clean Water Act currently covers 96 chemicals that can be discharged into streams, rivers and bays. Gov. Inslee would like to expand that list. The state health and ecology departments will determine which chemicals to add to the state’s list of regulated substances. PCBs, phthalate plasticizers, toxic flame retardants and zinc will be among them.

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