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Tuesday, July 10, 2012 - Page updated at 05:30 p.m.
Washington state casts line for residents' fish-consumption rate
By Maureen O'Hagan
Seattle Times staff reporter
How much fish do you eat? A lot?
The state of Washington is interested in this seemingly esoteric question. Businesses are, too. Ditto for local governments.
Before you go and turn the page, realize this is not an article about the diet police urging you to up your Omega 3s. It's something much deeper than that.
It's about the "fish-consumption rate," a funny little number that, in ways you might not realize, could have a profound effect in Washington. It can impact the bottom line of many businesses. It can affect sewer rates. Water quality. Even cancer rates.
"This is a huge deal," said Carl Schroeder, a lobbyist for the Association of Washington Cities.
The "deal" to which he's referring is Washington's efforts to identify an official fish-consumption rate to replace figures that are decades old. They're not trying to come up with average statewide numbers, so don't expect a survey in the mail. Instead, the goal is to learn how much fish the state's greatest consumers of fish eat.
Why? Depending on how much these high fish consumers eat, the state's fresh and saltwater bodies may have to get cleaner.
Here's the basic idea: Fish can harbor toxics, like mercury, PCBs and dioxins as a result of living in contaminated waters.
"The more fish you eat, the more chemicals you would take in, presumably," explained Patricia Cirone, a retired EPA official who is now an affiliate professor with the University of Washington's School of Public Health.
The state, like others, doesn't want to tell people not to eat fish. Fish, after all, have a lot going for them. Instead, the Department of Ecology wants to ensure the water and sediment are clean enough that even high fish consumers are protected. Through the magic of math, the new fish-consumption rate is going to force certain industries and government agencies to change their practices.
Here's how it works:
When water or sediment is contaminated, the responsible parties have to clean it up, but they don't have to remove every last drop of contamination. Instead, they must reduce the level of contaminants to hit certain targets based on an elaborate equation. How toxic is the chemical? That goes in the equation. How much of the chemical is likely to be ingested by humans? That's where the fish-consumption rate comes in. The way the equation works, if that number is high, the responsible parties are going to have to make things cleaner.
Currently, the state uses two default numbers: about one-quarter ounce of fish a day, which is applied in cases when a government agency or business wants to discharge into state waters, or 2 ounces of fish a day, in cases where existing contamination must be cleaned up. (They use grams, but we've converted the amounts to ounces.)
It appears there is general agreement that a whole lot of people eat more fish than that. One-quarter ounce of fish a day is the lowest rate in the nation and translates to less than a half-pound a month — about one generous serving. The 2 ounces translates to about 3.5 pounds a month.
For years, the Department of Ecology has known the rates are too low. That means some people likely are eating more fish than is safe.
As the DOE announced it would re-evaluate those numbers, the issue became a flash point for businesses and government agencies around the state, as well as for environmental groups and tribes. In general, environmental groups and tribes want cleaner water, and thus are interested in seeing the number go up. Businesses, which know a higher number will cost them more money in pollution controls, would rather hold the line. Local governments worry about increasing costs, but are treading lightly.
The DOE has been taking public input on the question and originally had planned to adopt new rates by next year; however, a spokeswoman said they no longer have a specific time frame in mind.
It turns out coming up with an accurate fish-consumption rate is a lot more complicated than it might seem. One topic of debate: Should we include fish like salmon, which spend much of their life in the ocean? And who, exactly, are we trying to protect? It might seem logical to focus on the median fish consumer. But by definition, 50 percent of people eat more than that.
"Should we just say it's acceptable those people are going to die at higher rates of cancer?" asks Bruce Wishart, a lobbyist with People for Puget Sound. "That's what we're doing."
Ecology decided to focus on the populations that consume a lot of fish, which are local tribes and Asian Pacific Islanders. There are a few older surveys available, and some tribes are conducting new ones. The next question: Do we set rates to protect every single fish eater? 85 percent of them? 95 percent? That's one of the places where the lobbying is going on.
In the end, the state says it's leaning toward a new rate of between 5.5 and 9.5 ounces a day — significantly higher than the current rates. This is where the businesses and government agencies began to worry. Still, said Chris McCabe, executive director of the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association, "this is not just a business-versus-the-environment issue." Costs could be passed along to consumers, too.
Last year, after much debate, Oregon adopted a new rate in that range, which made it the highest in the country.
McCabe's group predicted it would cost at least $500 million for a handful of pulp and paper mills to install the new technologies needed to meet the new targets. That's prohibitively expensive, he said. It's too soon to tell if the predictions will prove true.
Schroeder said the change would mean tighter pollution controls on things like stormwater and sewage system discharges, as well.
"If this moves forward, it's going to be more expensive to repair and create new wastewater treatment plants," he said. "It sounds crass to say cost matters, but you can't just build a wastewater-treatment plant with wishes."
For further information, see www.ecy.wa.gov/toxics/fish.html
Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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