Washington standards may change for fish consumption

Geoff Folsom, Tri-City HeraldMay 23, 2014 

Proposed changes to state standards for fish consumption have drawn fire from manufacturing and municipal lobbyists and praise from environmentalists.

Washington currently recommends that residents eat no more than 6.5 grams of fish caught in state waters per person a day, which adds up to about one fish filet a month.

A draft rule by the state Department of Ecology would raise that standard, possibly to Oregon's fish consumption rate of 175 grams per day. That's 25 times higher than any other state's standards.

That could have an impact on industries that discharge wastewater into state waters.

"The more fish you eat, the cleaner the water has to be," said Kelly Susewind, special assistant to Ecology's director.

Paper manufacturers are concerned.

"There is no technology standard today that can meet the proposed standards," said Chris McCabe, executive director of the Olympia-based Northwest Pulp & Paper Association. "You can't create standards that nobody can meet."

That could endanger the Boise Paper plant in Wallula, which employs 440 people, McCabe said. And municipal wastewater plants could also be impacted.

"Any new manufacturer that wants to come to the state of Washington and get a wastewater discharge permit, the state's going to hang up a big 'closed for business' sign," he said.

More than 200 municipal wastewater treatment plants could also be impacted by tightened rules, said Carl Schroeder, a lobbyist with the Association of Washington Cities.

A monthly water bill in Bellingham could go from $35 a month to $200 if the Oregon standards were to come to Washington, he said.

"The city of Bellingham could put in a $1 billion facility and still not meet the standards," Schroeder said. "We want to find a balanced solution that doesn't set standards we can't meet with technology that doesn't exist."

The Department of Ecology will only hold companies accountable to water quality standards its equipment can measure, Susewind said.

"The reality is it's going to be more difficult to comply with, it's going to be more cost, but it's not going to be the impossibility they say," he said.

The proposed rule was prompted after four conservation groups sued the federal Environmental Protection Agency, naming the state Department of Ecology as a defendant.

Laura Goldberg, staff attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper, one of the groups that sued, said the state has acknowledged that its current water quality rules fail to protect public health from contaminants like mercury, PCBs and arsenic.

"The goal of our lawsuit is to require EPA to follow through with its regulatory duties under the Clean Water Act to adopt rules for a state when the state is not doing its job under the Clean Water Act," Goldberg said.

Oregon has not shut down any industry or city water plants since adopting its rules, Goldberg said.

McCabe countered that plans in Oregon have not been able to get new permits -- only temporary extensions while the state works through the new regulations.

"At the end of the day, those folks will be held to comply with the Clean Water Act," he said.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has been heavily involved with the process, appointing a task force with representatives from forest product businesses and other industries, as well as cities, tribes and environmentalists, he said.

The state is looking for a solution that will both address human health and the limitations of current technology to detect and remove contaminants from water. Inslee admits he had hoped a decision would be announced by now.

"I wish we were further along," he said.

Susewind would like to see sides in the disagreement come together.

"There's been a lot of rhetoric on both sides," he said. "I think they would be better suited with a factual discussion."

A public comment period, likely between 45 and 60 days, will follow Ecology's draft rule, with a final rule expected later this year, Susewind said.

-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom

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