Fish, Boeing and Public Health: What’s going on?

The federal Clean Water Act sets water pollution limits for industries that spill wastewater, contaminated with pollutants, into our lakes, rivers, streams, estuaries, oceans, and, of course, Puget Sound. How those limits are set is a very complicated, contentious process—that far too often involves more political science than the physical and health sciences.

The state, which implements the Act in conjunction with EPA, is supposed to set pollution limits for many pollutants, according to “the designated uses” of a body of water to protect human health. If people drink from the water, the water should be safe for drinking.  If people swim in the water, the water should be safe for swimming.  And if people fish in the water, the fish caught should be safe to eat. 

boy with fish Washington never set its own human health criteria for fish consumption from local waters based upon how much fish  Washingtonians eat. Back in 1992, Washington became one of fourteen states that set its water quality standards based upon on the national fish consumption rate standard—even though fish and shellfish are part of the fabric of life in Washington.  In 2013, the state’s fish consumption standard even lags behind the national standard. Currently, Washington’s standard is 6.5 grams per day: the amount that would fit on a Ritz cracker. That amounts to 195 grams per month—a portion just a bit larger than Oregon’s current fish consumption rate for a single day. Plainly, Washington’s fish consumption rate needs updating.

Recognizing finally that Washingtonians undoubtedly eat more fish and shellfish than folks in Oklahoma, the state is opting not to rely on national averages but local data. 

Not surprisingly, different people in Washington eat different amounts of fish.  Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, sportfishers, and, of course, Washington’s Native Americans, on average, eat more fish than Caucasians.  Low income people also eat more locally caught fish.  Shouldn’t we set water quality standards to protect the health of even the most fish loving amongst us? 

The state has gathered data on the consumption patterns of some Washington tribes, Pacific Islanders and sportsfishers.  Kelly Sussewind of the Department of Ecology’s Water Quality Program testified last week before the Senate Energy, Environment and Technology committee that the data pointed to three options to change the fish consumption rate

  • Increasing it to 125 grams per day, or 8 pounds a month. This is the mean fish consumption rate of three Puget Sound tribes which Ecology surveyed. This is also roughly the minimum amount that the American Heart Association recommends everyone should eat monthly.
  • Increasing it to 175 grams per day, or 12 pounds a month. This is Oregon’s standard.
  • Increasing it to 225 grams of fish a day, or 15 pounds a month. This rate is based on data from the Suquamish Tribe and recreational fishers.

Which standard to use?  Certainly the highest standard will protect the most people. Moreover, whatever standard is adopted will be used not just for cancer causing agents but all toxins present in fish—including mercury, PCBs, and arsenic. The diseases associated with these carcinogens and toxins have widely different exposure sensitivities, and consequences. This argues for choosing the most stringent standard.

The political problem is that the more protective the fish consumption rate, the more stringent the water quality standards will have to be to meet that rate, limiting discharges of new pollutants into Washington’s waters.  Even though those higher standards will only apply to new discharges of pollutants, industry is very concerned.  Limiting new water pollution could cost industry and others regulated under the Clean Water Act money—perhaps serious money. Boeing and other industries with a record of pollution have pushed hard to stall the adoption of a new fish consumption rate.

Governor Gregoire forced the Department of Ecology to put its updates to the fish consumption rate on hold at the behest of Boeing back in 2012.  Last Spring, Boeing kept the state legislature from passing a budget for several days over the issue of fish consumption rates.  This Fall, the Governor created a special advisory committee to discuss the issue; Boeing refused to attend.  Then, when Boeing suggested that it might build its new 777x outside of Washington, the Governor called a special session to ask the legislature to pass tax breaks to keep Boeing in the state; fish consumption rates were also on the table.

As we all know, Boeing’s Machinists rejected Boeing’s new contract which would have cut back pension and health benefits.  Boeing is now shopping its new 777x plane to other states.

 So where does that leave the state’s roll out of a new, more realistic fish consumption rate?

The Legislature is holding pre-session hearings on fish consumption rates. Unfortunately, legislative intervention in the complexities of fish consumption rates has more to do with keeping Boeing happy, than protecting human health.

Ecology has yet to announce which of the alternatives identified last Thursday it will choose.  But what was clear at the legislative hearing last week is that Ecology will use “implementation tools”, such as intake credits, compliance schedule extensions of as much as 20 years, and variances to extend when industry has to clean up its discharges.  These implementation tools will inevitably seriously dilute the immediate and the long term benefit to human health of whatever updated fish consumption rate is ultimately chosen.

That simply may not protect our children—and especially those who are come from cultures that eat more than the average amount of local fish.  Shouldn’t they be protected too?

What can you do? Email Governor Inslee Governor.Inslee@Governor.wa.govn and Ecology Director Maia Bellon today.  Ask them to stop delaying.  Ask them to roll out a scientifically valid, protective fish consumption standard, and to require a rigorous implementation schedule.  To do otherwise, harms us all but especially those Washingtonians who eat fish for cultural and economic reasons—and their children.