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Inslee pushes ahead on new pollution rules

Fishing along the Duwamish River, where pollution is a considerable problem. Credit: Papahazama/Flickr

Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed fish consumption standards took one step closer to a likely legislative battle Tuesday.

The Washington Department of Ecology unveiled its draft rules Tuesday, which are supposed to help lawmakers set limits on industrial discharges into state waterways. Tuesday's unveiling outlined Inslee's proposal in more detail and with more in-the-trenches information, said Kelly Susewind, special assistant to Ecology Director Maia Bellon.

At the same time, the Ecology Department and the governor appeared to be taking pains to defend his proposals. Inslee has come under fire from some of his supporters for what they see as leniency toward industry. Boeing, in particular, has been clear that it opposes any dramatic tightening of regulations.

“The majority of our concerns about toxics come not from big pipes but from the every-day chemicals in our environment,” Inslee said in a press release. “We are working with business, local government and tribes on a proposal to prevent the use of largely unregulated toxic chemicals the Clean Water Act cannot address.” He said it is important to prevent the chemicals entering the environment.

The key number in Inslee's approach and the draft rules is making the assumption that the average Washingtonian eats 175 grams of fish a day — essentially a meal a day. The current assumption used in calculating water pollution limits is a dramatically smaller amount of fish consumption, 6.5 grams a day, roughly the weight of a saltine cracker. Susewind said that maintaining the current assumption could not be done with a straight face.

But the weight of fish eaten daily is just one variable that the state wants to plug into complicated formulas to govern the volumes and ingredients of industrial discharges in Washington's waterways. The higher average rate of fish consumption could dramatically tip the balance toward much stricter regulations. But Inslee’s proposal would reduce the effect by also changing the assumed likelihood of a person getting cancer from eating the fish. By one calculation, the effect is that the future discharge regulations would only be two to three times stricter than today’s, much less than could have been the case based on the change in average fish consumption.

Inslee wants the 2015 Legislature to pass a law to regulate industrial discharges more strictly. 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. But increasing the fish consumption number will automatically make every discharge permit stricter.

In July, when Inslee first outlined his proposed regulation changes, tribal representatives said the 175-gram-a-day target is too low because their people routinely eat several hundred grams of fish a day. Subsistence fishing is a major food source for the state's tribes. The appropriate people at the Northwest Indians Fisheries Commission could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Bellon acknowledged that the state has heard a lot of concerns, but she said the proposals do not allow for increased risks of cancer. “What matters to people and fish is not the formula but the outcome – it’s less about the complex formula going into the standard and more about the level of pollution coming out of the pipe,” she said in a statement. “And the end result is that most standards are more protective and, with the one exception of naturally occurring arsenic, no standard is less protective than today.”

Inslee's proposal also would allow 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.

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