Counting fish consumption: Big-stakes debate turns on measurement method

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SEATTLE — A bitter fight over how much fish people eat — and thus how clean Washington waters should be — has pitted tribes, commercial fishermen and environmental groups against Boeing, business groups and municipalities.

The state Department of Ecology appears ready to boost the current fish consumption rate, an obscure number that has huge ramifications for the state because it drives water-quality standards. A higher number means fewer toxic pollutants would be allowed in waters.

"So much is at stake," said Kelly Susewind with the Department of Ecology, adding: "People are worried about what we might do. Are we going to be protective enough? Are we going to drive business out of the state? That ups the ante."

Meanwhile, the regional head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has warned the state that the EPA intends to take over the process if the state doesn't finalize a rule by this year. And a coalition of environmental groups is asking a federal judge in Seattle to get the EPA to step in and force the state to complete a rule or to do it themselves.

The state missed its own March deadline to release a draft rule. With "strong guidance" from Gov. Jay Inslee, the state is still deliberating and may not have a draft rule until later this summer, Susewind said.

Inslee has gotten personally involved in the issue, calling a task force representing tribal, business and environmental interests to advise him.

It's a political balancing act for the Democratic governor, who has made the environment a central issue but also has shown a willingness to accommodate companies such as Boeing Co. The aerospace giant in March raised concerns to Inslee that the proposals "will have unintended consequences for continued Boeing production in the state."

Inslee spokesman David Postman said the governor believes a balance is possible and "that's what he's working for."

For years, the state has known it needs to update its fish consumption rate, which federal regulators say doesn't sufficiently protect those who eat the most fish, particularly Native Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Studies have shown Washington residents eat more fish than other people nationwide, but the state currently assumes people eat about 6½ grams a day — or about a small fillet once a month.

The state is now certain to boost that amount, and is considering a fish consumption rate between 125 and 225 grams of fish a day. Oregon set its rate at 175 grams a day, the highest for a U.S. state.

While a higher fish rate would make standards more stringent, Ecology is also considering changing another factor in the complicated formula that would likely make standards less stringent. The proposal would increase by tenfold the excess cancer risk rate from certain cancer-causing chemicals.

The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance and other groups have told Inslee that a less-protective cancer risk level is unacceptable, and would disproportionately harm those who eat the most fish. They worry that a higher cancer risk level would offset gains elsewhere.

The Association of Washington Business, local governments such as Everett and others, meanwhile, have told Inslee that keeping the cancer risk factor at its current rate is "unacceptable" and, coupled with a high fish consumption rate, would result in "unmeasurable incremental health benefits, and predictable economic turmoil."

They say some standards being debated would drive businesses out of state. They note that technology doesn't exist in some cases to limit certain pollutants, though environmental groups argue that the standards would drive technological innovations.

The state is also considering issuing variances allowing businesses and municipalities that discharge pollutants into waterways to meet the standards, though they would be required to report progress periodically.