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Science, Law & the Environment Emerging Topics in Environmental Law

Fish Consumption Issuing Major Sticking Point in Washington Budget Negotiations

Posted in Clean Water Act, Cleanup & Superfund, Emerging Policy, Fish Consumption, Public Health Policy, Rule Making, Water Quality

Erik Smith over at the Washington State Wire just published a great piece on how the fish consumption issue is hanging up budget negotiations in Olympia. This piece, along with Robert McClure’s piece of investigative journalism from a couple months back frame nicely the political component of the fish consumption issue. The current sticking point regarding budget negotiations in Olympia is that Boeing has asked the legislature to fund a $1 million study by the University of Washington to quantify, on an area-by-area basis, actual fish consumption rates associated with waters in Washington.

I’ve commented on the fish consumption issue a few times in this blog, including my musings on whether all the effort to change consumption rates will actually impact water quality or toxin concentrations in fish. The quote by State Representative Hans Dunshee in Erik’s article captures the tribal position on the subject well, essentially that “there are studies that show fish-consumption is much higher than the state level, so it is time to move forward on that” and that the tribes feel they are eating “fish poison” because of levels of toxics found in fish. Without hard data, I can’t really comment on this statement’s validity–but I can say that, if you take higher fish consumption rates and plug them into current risk assessment equations, you are probably over-estimating risk. For instance, the Duwamish Superfund Site Human Health Risk Assessment had to extrapolate from fish consumption rates reported from other areas, and made conservative assumptions to address data gaps in actual fish consumption data, like the assumption that a fish consumer was getting 100% of its fish from the Duwamish. Current Ecology regulations default to the assumption that half of an individual’s total fish consumption comes from the water in question, which may or may not be a valid default assumption for some waters in Washington.

So, in my mind as a scientist and a lawyer, the study being requested by Boeing is a good thing, and should be supported by both sides of the aisle in Olympia. Instead of wrestling with uncertainty (and addressing that uncertainty by making what may be overly-conservative assumptions), this study is a good opportunity to gather the data needed to address tribal concerns that they are eating “fish poison.” Representative Dunshee has a strong environmental record. I’d hope that he can recognize the environmental value of this study–it has the potential to provide valuable data that can be used to evaluate the tribal concerns on a quantitative basis, and the resulting data can also be used to inform efforts to address the presence of the “toxics of concern” in Washington’s waters.

As my Ph.D. adviser used to scold me: “How do we know? Because we measured it.”

The current fish consumption technical document will, if applied in the water quality context, result in up to a 20-fold reduction in water quality criteria for toxics. This has the potential to impose a tremendous burden on dischargers, which is one of the motivations behind Boeing’s work to get this study funded. Applied to the cleanup world, the fish consumption rates have the potential to define all of Western Washington as contaminated and requiring regulatory attention. Such a result is absurd, and also leaves us in a similar situation to the Duwamish Superfund Site, where cleanup levels defined for a waterway are often below “background” concentrations, i.e., the ambient concentrations of contaminants flowing into a waterway. Under the state cleanup law, such cleanups will have to try and achieve that background level–something that is likely impossible.

The latest from Olympia includes rumors that the Governor is working on a compromise that allows for the consumption study to proceed in parallel with current rulemaking efforts. I hope that compromise is accepted by the politicians in Olympia and that this study is funded and done in a timely manner to bring hard data to the fish consumption issue.