How much fish do you eat? Twelve pounds a month? If you’re like most people, the answer isn’t anywhere close – one of the reasons Gov. Jay Inslee’s judgment call on a momentous water-quality issue last week struck so many people as absurd.
The governor decreed Wednesday that the state shall use a figure of 12 pounds a month as it calculates new water-quality standards – a big increase from the current half-pound a month. He will soon propose a rule to this effect. Of course the average Washington resident doesn’t eat 12 pounds a month. State officials have never bothered to determine an exact number, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tells us the national average is 14.4 pounds a year.
And the governor says people eat how much?
Believe it or not, Inslee’s decision is the most sensible pronouncement that has emerged to date from any government official during Washington’s long-running battle over fish consumption and water-quality standards. Count it among the top-ten most important state-government decisions of the last decade. Billions of dollars are riding on it, the possibility of costly pollution-control mandates that might sap the vitality of Washington industry, and sewage bills that might cost every homeowner $200 a month or more. Inslee found a clever way out, and while there are a thousand details that still might bollix things up, Washington ought to be grateful that the greenest governor turned out not to be so green as to bend to dictates that make no sense whatever.
What really ought to puzzle people is the fact that the state faces pressure from federal regulators and special-interest groups to adopt a “science-based” policy involving virtually no science at all.
For the last few years, the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency has been pushing Washington to increase its water-quality standards. The office, an outlier among EPA offices nationally, promotes a theory of “environmental justice” – a matter of politics, not science. The argument is that minority groups may be may be more affected by pollution than the general population, so regulations should be written for them, not for the average Joe.
The trouble is that there never has been any reason to believe anyone is inadequately protected at present. There definitely are studies proving Native Americans eat more fish than most. But important scientific questions have never been asked. Like which fish are they eating? Could higher standards in Washington have much effect on fish that spend most of their lives in the ocean? And is anyone getting sick from eating fish in the first place?
Already the regional EPA office has convinced Oregon to adopt the 12-pound-a-month figure, giving it by far the highest water-quality standards in the country, 25 times higher than Washington’s. The result is general nuttiness.
Industrial plants, sewage treatment facilities and big blacktopped properties that require runoff permits now face regulations requiring them to clean wastewater to impossible levels — cleaner than the background levels of lakes and streams, so clean that pollutants cannot be measured and no technology can do the job. Every time a permit is renewed, the latest and greatest technology can be required, yet it never will be good enough. Then environmental groups can sue to overturn any decision regulators make.
This nightmare is just beginning in Oregon, and EPA, environmental groups and Native American tribes have been doing their best to bully Washington officials into bringing it here, via the courts and regulatory action. Cost would be immense, benefit practically nil. The Association of Washington Cities estimates Puget Sound sewage customers would spend $7.4 billion to comply with PCB regulations alone. Yet PCB contamination in the Sound after 25 years would be reduced just six percent.
While Washington might be able to stand firm and fight, Inslee’s solution is an elegant one, embracing a suggestion that emerged during lobbying by business, local government officials and labor unions. His proposed rule will adopt Oregon’s high fish-consumption number, while ratcheting down another component of the regulatory calculation, the cancer risk level, from one-in-a-million to one-in-a-hundred-thousand. Standards for some pollutants will double or triple, but none will decrease and none will increase 25 times. They will be achievable. Inslee adds an element that has business on edge — a plan to reduce toxics in the environment. Until details are revealed it is best to offer the benefit of the doubt. Such an approach stands a better chance of improving the environment than these draconian water quality standards ever did.
That really is the funny part. The change in the fish consumption rate and the cancer risk level will not make a whit of difference to the state’s 60,000 enrolled tribal members. It is possible to do the math. The number of additional cancers they might expect annually from eating fish has always been less than one. There lies an absurdity worth carping about.