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July 22, 2014 at 6:02 AM

State’s editorial boards: Some praise, some snort at Inslee’s fish-consumption proposal

Salmon steaks in a market. (Source: Wikipedia creative commons.)

Salmon steaks in a market. (Source: Wikipedia creative commons.)

Washington’s editorial writers seemed pretty much of one mind before Gov. Jay Inslee announced his “fish consumption” proposal two weeks ago. Now that the state’s chief executive has spoken they’re all over the map.

The issue has provoked one of the biggest policy debates in recent years, as federal regulators, Native American tribes and environmental groups pressured the state to adopt a higher estimate of individual fish consumption. Worried business interests and local governments have been in a state of high alarm because the estimate drives the state’s water quality standards. Every editorial page that opined on the subject prior to the announcement urged the governor to show moderation, with the exception of The Herald of Everett. But now that Inslee has come up with a plan, there seems to be a bit of disagreement.

An editorial in The Olympian calls it a “reasonable middle ground,” while the Tri-City Herald snorts, “flat-out ridiculous.”

The governor will propose a regulation that gives the feds, the tribes and the environmentalists precisely what they asked for – a dramatically higher fish-consumption estimate, about 25 times higher than at present. That prospect had business warning industrial development would be shut down, because a 25-fold increase in water-quality standards would make them so stringent they could not be met with current technology, much less be measured, and billions would be spent for practically no discernible improvement.

But in a solution the Times described in its editorial as “the right one for a healthy Washington economy,” Inslee ratchets down another element of the calculation, the cancer-risk level, by a factor of 10. So instead of getting water quality standards that are 25 times more stringent, most requirements will merely double or triple; none will be allowed to decrease. Inslee also will seek legislation next session that will give the state Department of Ecology greater authority to regulate toxic substances in the environment, a troubling prospect for some, but one which might achieve some result, and which might help quell environmental-group opposition.

Not the easiest thing to explain – and that probably explains the wild divergence in editorial views. The Herald of Everett has yet to weigh in on Inslee’s proposal. But every paper that has expressed an opinion so far about Inslee’s proposal has remarked either on the absurdity of the new fish-consumption estimate, or on the idea that everyone got a little of what they wanted and economic disaster was averted.

What galled some writers was the lack of scientific justification for the rule change. “The consumption rate OK’d by the governor seems to be derived from political calculations rather than science,” says an editorial in the Union-Bulletin of Walla Walla.

As the Times pointed out last week, no studies show the state’s current standards are inadequate. Nor do they show any state regulation would improve human health – an important point, given that so many fish caught in Washington spend most of their lives in the ocean. Studies do show tribal members eat more fish than the general population, however,  and so the state’s estimate will rise from 6.5 grams a day to 175 grams to reflect tribal consumption, not a state average. That’s about 12 pounds a month.

“That’s about one serving of fish,” says the editorial in the Tri-City Herald. “Per Day. Per person.”

“Think about it. Even if you are a fish lover who eats a lot of it, you’re likely not eating local fish often unless you’re the one catching it. If you’re buying salmon from Costco, for example, it’s likely Atlantic farm-raised or Copper River from Alaska when it’s in season. Neither is affected by Washington’s environmental standards.”

The Daily News of Longview published an editorial equally unimpressed with the science:

“[A] study of how much fish Washingtonians actually eat and where those fish come from hasn’t been funded by the Legislature, so Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and everyone else are left to speculate.”

Such a study might be a good place to start, it says.

Other papers noted that Inslee has a fine line to walk. His solution “may not satisfy every interest group, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency least of all,” says an editorial in The Spokesman-Review of Spokane. It adds that Inslee “owns this issue as he has owned no other in his administration, and he cannot let the debate get out of control.”

In its editorial, the Times noted that business is wary of the coming proposal on toxics reduction, as it ought to be. But so far, so good. The state may have dodged a hugely expensive bullet. “The details will be important, but potential for much greater benefit is clear. There still isn’t much science, but Inslee’s plan is a promising compromise. Anyone who pays a sewer bill in Washington should cheer.”

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