Our Voice: Inslee's fish consumption rates unrealistic, unhelpful

July 17, 2014 

Do you eat a fish every day?

Make that a fish caught in Washington waters.

We're going to guess the answer is no.

We like fish. We like locally caught fish. But eating a serving of Washington-caught fish each day is a stretch for most, unless maybe you're camping and subsisting on fresh caught trout.

Why does the amount of fish you eat matter?

Because our governor has proposed clean water rules for our state by copying Oregon and setting a fish-consumption rate that is flat-out ridiculous.

The amount of fish people eat is part of a complex formula used to calculate how clean rivers, lakes and streams should be. The theory is that the more fish we eat, the cleaner the waters need to be. That makes sense, but the amount of fish in Inslee's proposal is absurdly high, thus creating untenable water cleanliness requirements.

After hearing from both sides -- the tribes and environmental groups vs. big businesses and municipalities -- Gov. Jay Inslee has determined that the rate of fish consumption will be 175 grams a day. That's about one serving of fish. Per day. Per person.

Think about it. Even if you are a fish lover who eats a lot of it, you're likely not eating local fish often unless you're the one catching it. If you're buying salmon from Costco, for example, it's likely Atlantic farm-raised or Copper River from Alaska when it's in season. Neither is affected by Washington's environmental standards.

Big businesses are concerned the rules would hurt economic growth by making it more difficult to get a permit to discharge waste water from factories and other facilities, and the technology required to clean it to the new standards would be cost prohibitive.

Waste treatment experts say standards based on Inslee's estimate for fish consumption set limits for some toxins that are so low that cities will be out of compliance and have to put a moratorium on new sewer hook-ups.

The technology doesn't exist for a municipal waste treatment plant to remove enough of the existing background level of PCBs, for example, to meet Oregon-style standards.

An HDR Engineering study commissioned by the Association of Washington Business, Association of Washington Cities and Association of Washington Counties noted that, "the Oregon water quality standard for PCBs is lower than the current analytical ability to measure the pollutant."

In other words, the goal is not only unattainable, but also unmeasurable.

The tribes and environmentalists supported the higher fish consumption rate but Inslee's proposal didn't make either side happy. Details like variances that would allow some companies to opt out of compliance and calculations for cancer-risk levels that could possibly make the rules less defensive in some cases have even supporters concerned.

"It's not what we wanted. It's unacceptable to me," said one tribal representative. "It's good on one side, and it takes away on the other end."

The governor said the rules won't be final until he meets with the Legislature during the next session to address chemicals not covered by the federal Clean Water Act.

In the meantime, you'll all have an opportunity to track your fish consumption.

Washington residents eat more fish than those in most other states, studies show. But the current consumption rate is about 6.5 grams per day. That's equivalent to about one fillet once a month. Our bet is that's a lot more accurate figure than the governor's guess.

Inslee needs to take a realistic look at the facts before he sets a standard so high that compliance isn't even possible.

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