Courtesy Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission
The U.S. EPA has released new guidelines for fish consumption that are more in line with what people eat, clearing the way for more stringent water-pollution standards.

Treaty Tribes in Washington Hail EPA’s Proposed Fish Consumption Rate and Water Quality Rules

Terri Hansen

It has been 20 years since Oregon revised its fish consumption rate (FCR) from 6.5 to 17.5 grams per day (gpd) in 1994, and then to 175 grams per day in 2011 to reflect what Native peoples, anglers and other fish consumers actually eat. The rate is used to set standards for water quality and cleanup of contaminated sites.

In neighboring Washington however, the FCR has stagnated at 6.5 grams per day (about one bite), so low that Washington’s human health water standards quit protecting people who eat fish years ago.

Finally, after 20 years of tribal effort using sound science to try to convince state politicians to revise Washington’s FCR, and battling corporations such as Boeing that claim it will increase their cost of doing business, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stepped in. The hard work by the 20 treaty tribes of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission’s (NWIFC) in western Washington is paying off.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy signed a proposed rule on August 31 to update Washington’s water quality standards to reflect the region’s fish consumption of 175 grams per day, with a cancer risk rate of one in a million—standards the tribes wanted, and agree on.

“The state’s current level of 6.3 grams per day has been far too low and far too dangerous,” Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp said in a statement. “The 175 gpd level would require that water be safe from poisonous chemicals to that level.”

RELATED: Fish Consumption Rate Needs Updating

Sharp, who also serves as president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and area vice president of the National Congress of American Indians, said the EPA’s proposed cancer risk rate is a must.

“When [Washington Governor Jay Inslee] proposed the increased gpd level in August 2014, after years of pleading by the tribes to do so, he also proposed to decrease protection from carcinogens from one part per million to one part per 100,000,” Sharp said. “That, in effect, removed the benefit.”

The governor’s proposed legislation failed in the 2015 state session.

RELATED: New Fish Consumption Guidelines More Political Than Scientific, Northwest Tribes Say

Establishing the higher consumption rate will force polluters to reduce the amount of new contaminants they dump into the water, keeping salmon and other seafood clean. The proposed rule “benefits everyone else who lives here,” NWIFC Chair Lorraine Loomis said in the announcement.

RELATED: Toxic Waters: Consumption Advisories on Life-Giving Year-Round Fish Threaten Health

Sharp said corporate lobbies have continued to oppose the efforts to clean up water quality, essentially saying they can’t afford not to pollute the water we all depend on, and that cleaning up their act would cause them to lose business.

“That makes no sense to us,” Sharp said. “Isn’t it good for business to keep people alive and healthy?”

The EPA's proposed rule updates the FCR based on more recent regional and local fish consumption data, as well as updates the toxicity and exposure parameters used to calculate human health criteria, EPA Regional Administrator Dennis McLerran told tribal leaders in an e-mail on September 2. The proposed rule also takes into account applicable EPA policies, guidance and legal requirements to protect human health.

The treaty tribes praised the EPA “for taking a leadership role to ensure our state’s water quality standards meet requirements of the federal Clean Water Act and protect human health,” NWIFC said.

“This is the first positive step forward we’ve seen in our fight to protect human health and the food we’ve always depended on,” Loomis said. “We appreciate EPA’s willingness to protect the integrity of our state’s environment and the water-based resources that are central to human health and treaty rights.”

Sharp said the Quinault Nation was very pleased with the EPA’s proposed revision.

The EPA was planning to publish the proposed rule in the Federal Register in mid-September and is accepting public comments on its proposal for 60 days. McLerran told tribal leaders their agency continues to prefer that the state finalize its own water quality criteria, with standards that protect fish consumers in Washington. Should the state move to submit final human health criteria to EPA, the agency would most likely suspend its federal rulemaking in order to fulfill its required duty to review and act upon what the state submits in a timely manner.

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