Boeing's pollution worries are becoming Olympia's policy worries

The company fears troubles from changes in state assumptions about water quality and the amount of fish state residents eat.

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Fishing from the pier at Seacrest Park in West Seattle

The company fears troubles from changes in state assumptions about water quality and the amount of fish state residents eat.

The question hits the crossroads between science and public policy: What numbers should be plugged into formulas to determine whether industrial pollution will increase the chances of someone developing cancer from eating the state's fish?

Washington's Department of Ecology is in the preliminary stage of finding some answers and setting some rules. And the Washington Senate's Energy & Environment Committee expects to chew over that issue in the 2014 legislative session.

Kelly Susewind, manager of Ecology's water quality program, briefed the committee on the issue Monday in Olympia. The briefing was prompted by a peripheral budget deadlock in the 2013 legislative session in which the Boeing Co. did not like an upcoming change in state regulations on the level of pollutants that industrial facilities are allowed to discharge into the water. The stricter discharge requirements could lead to expensive upgrades to discharge systems.

Boeing sought a study on the numbers and types of fish consumed in Washington, and an accounting of who caught the fish and where. (InvestigateWest ran a story on Boeing's opposition to the new regulations in March.) House Democrats wanted the new regulations installed because of concerns about Boeing's discharges potentially affecting the health of the fish eaten by local tribes, whose diets are heavily fish-oriented. Eventually, Republicans and Democrats decided to put that dispute aside into order to reach a compromise on the 2013-2015 operating budget.

Now, the issue has resurfaced in anticipation of the 2014 legislative session.

"It seems to me that you'd want the answers to the questions first before you make the rules," said Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale and chairman of the Senate Energy & Environment Committee.

Ecology's Susewind told the committee that 36 states have their own specific standards on carcinogen-laced discharges and fish consumption. Washington 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.

The feds have been using the assumption that the average person — crunching fish eaters and non-fish eaters together for a yearly estimated and dividing that by 365 days — eats 6.5 grams of fish a day or a little less one-fourth of 1 ounce. The feds are in the process of shifting that estimate to 17.5 grams per day. That will still be well less than an ounce a day, and it translates to neary 14 pounds of fish a year.

Native Americans with their fish-heavy diets are assumed to each eat 142 grams per day. That estimate is in the process of being shifted up to 175 grams daily, if not more.

Oregon assumes a person eats an average of 175 grams a day of fish for state residents, while Idaho currently assumes much less: 17.5 grams of fish a day per person.

Washington is collecting data and figuring out numbers to plug into its formulas in order to set new limits. Variables include comparing the ratios of chemicals inside aquatic creatures to the ratios of same chemical in the surrounding waters, the carcinogenic potency of individual chemicals (126 chemicals, some cancer-causing, have been identified in state waters), fish consumption and whether the state wants to limit the increased risk of cancer due to exposure to 1-in-1 million, or 1-in-10,000, or something in between.

Because they migrate between the ocean and the state's fresh waters, salmon create a tricky problem in figuring out where their toxic chemicals come from, Susewind said. And different numbers can come from different species of salmon. 

"Each parameter that goes into the equations is a policy choice. ... Every time I think I've gotten to the bottom layer, there's another layer," Susewind said. 

Ericksen expects to hold public hearings on the issue early in the 2014 session. He is unsure whether legislation will be introduced, saying the committee's 'primary mission in this matter is to provide oversight of the Ecology Department's rules-making process.

Meanwhile, several environmental organizations have filed a 60-day notice of intent to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to force it to provide stricter standards. That 60th day was Monday, meaning a lawsuit can now be filed anytime.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8