Finesse over force: Inslee walks delicate line in water-quality debate

OLYMPIA — Finesse is a word rarely used to describe Gov. Jay Inslee’s approach to fashioning policy.

More likely, one hears the first-term governor’s style portrayed as passionate and visionary by fans, disengaged and blunt-force-partisan by critics.

Yet in the matter of setting water quality standards based on how much fish residents consume, Inslee has displayed a greater degree of forbearance than on any issue he’s publicly confronted.

From his first day in office, Inslee and his advisors have searched for the sweet spot of political consensus on increasing the existing fish consumption rate without triggering a standard for cleaner water discharges that no amount of technology can meet.

He’s wanted to please his newest friends in the tribes and closest ones in the environmental community. He’s wanted to win back old friends in the labor community, especially Machinists.

But he’s wanted to avoid alienating those he’s been trying to befriend in the corporate world, from Wall Street behemoths like Boeing to Main Street startups around the state.

He’s still working out the details. When he does finally put forward a proposal — maybe before heading to the Farnborough Air Show in England in mid-July — no one will be completely satisfied.

Last week, in comments to tribal leaders, Inslee provided a sneak preview of where he’ll end up.

First, the fish consumption rate will rise significantly, as tribes and environmentalists demand. Today, it assumes residents eat an average of 6.5 grams of fish per day, which works out to be the equivalent of an eight-ounce fillet per month. All indications are that Inslee will endorse boosting it to 175 grams a day.

Second, the state might reset what is known as the cancer-risk rate. Currently, state law assumes no more than one person out of 1 million will get cancer from eating fish caught in Washington waters. If left unchanged when the fish consumption rate is boosted, it would mean stricter rules on toxins in discharged water. Cities and companies say stricter rules cannot be met. If Inslee doesn’t endorse reducing this cancer risk to one in 100,000 people, as he could, he’ll leave dischargers of water, including companies and municipalities, lots of leeway to mollify their worries.

And third, Inslee is poised to use the fish consumption debate as a springboard to a different but related problem — of pollutants getting into rivers and waterways from sources the state doesn’t now control.

These so-called non-point sources of pollution occur when runoff from rain or melting snow carries oil, grease, toxic chemicals and other pollutants into lakes, rivers, coastal waters and aquifers.

“We could do this a thousand grams a day, 10 to the minus 20, but it still wouldn’t solve this problem of toxicity that our children and grandchildren are exposed to, because this permit system doesn’t encompass the vast majority of sources for these toxins,” Inslee told tribal leaders.

He said officials are trying to come up with ways to keep such pollutants “out of the stream of commerce so they don’t get into our water. And I have come to see this (fish consumption) rule as something that, if we do it right, it can have a larger impact on the reduction of toxicities that our families are exposed to. That’s one of the reasons it is taking us longer than we would have liked to actually propose the rule.”

If it ends up working, Inslee might find finesse is a better method than force for his priorities.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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