The state is petitioning to become a defendant in a federal lawsuit that aims to raise estimates for the amount of fish people consume, which would force the adoption of stricter water quality standards.
In October, conservation and fishing groups sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, charging that since the agency determined that the state's fish consumption rates are too low, it has a responsibility to step in and require both consumption estimates and water quality standards to be raised.
"The state of Washington, unfortunately, is not doing its job protecting people's health when it comes to locally caught fish," said Lauren Goldberg, staff attorney with Columbia Riverkeeper, one of the groups that brought the lawsuit.
The fish consumption rates matter because the state uses them to set water quality standards that protect the public health. Simply put, the more fish you eat, the more pollution you are exposed to.
The state currently uses a standard of 0.2 ounces of fish per day, which represents a single 8-ounce serving a month. That means water quality standards aren't strict enough to protect from pollution exposure tribal members, fishermen and others who eat more than one serving of local fish a month.
The state Department of Ecology has been in the process of updating that standard for several years and intends to have a draft of new rules ready for review in early 2014. The new fish consumption levels under discussion at a November meeting range from 4 to 8 ounces a day, according to documents on Ecology's website.
Ecology wants to become a defendant in the lawsuit to ensure that it can "protect the state's significant interest in continuing the process Ecology has already initiated to revise Washington's fish consumption rate and human health water quality standards," according to court documents, rather than have the EPA set new standards for the state.
Ecology has successfully intervened in similar cases, according to Janelle Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the state's Attorney General's office.
Janette Brimmer, an attorney for Earthjustice, the environmental law firm that brought the case, said that the goal is to push the court to set enforceable deadlines for new standards.
Brimmer said she's not sure what the state hopes to accomplish by joining the lawsuit.
All Ecology has to do is set a new standard that meets federal approval, she said, and the lawsuit will be dropped.
"The state keeps telling us that they'll have a standard ready to go by the end of January," Brimmer said.
"If they do, well that's great, but if they don't, we've got the EPA as a backup, which is exactly how the Clean Water Act is supposed to work."