Fretting over the nonexistent

The standards don’t exist. But were they to exist, they should un-exist. And so we wait. Cue Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” “There’s no lack of void.”

Beckett-like absurdity was on display at Monday’s press conference with leaders of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and the Association of Western Pulp &Paper Workers. They, like many union honchos, said they worry that a rejiggering of Washington’s fish-consumption rate and water-quality standards will threaten jobs. So says Boeing and assorted industries. Never underestimate the power of industry fear-mongering over an unknown known.

“We want clean water but we believe this is just too extreme,” Greg Pallesen, international vice president of the paper workers union, said about the non-existent, updated standards. “We can have great intentions on this stuff but the extreme (policy) will have a negative impact on jobs.”

Specifics on the nonexistent weren’t forthcoming. But nothing focuses the mind like “job loss.”

The fish-consumption controversy was flagged last year by journalist Robert McClure and InvestigateWest. For more than a decade, the Washington Department of Ecology knew it had to update its paltry fish consumption estimates ­— 6.5 grams a day. The estimate is critical because it informs the acceptable level of carcinogenic discharge, specifically arsenic, mercury and PCBs. It’s an inverse relationship — low-ball consumption rates and ratchet up the permissible discharge of cancer-causing toxins.

During the 2013 Boeing special session, the company agreed that the process Gov. Jay Inslee had laid out for fish consumption was just fine. That process includes DOE’s issuing of a draft rule with two elements: a new consumption standard and the tools for implementing it. While DOE will soon float its recommendation, it’s still a draft.

Groups, including the city of Everett, specifically ask for an incremental excess cancer rate of less than the current 10e-6, which is one in a million (they’re technically wrong to advocate “less than.” The incremental excess cancer rate goes up under their scenario). The business preference is 10e-5, which is a tenfold decrease in protection, or one in 100,000; or, Boeing’s recommendation of closer to 10e-4, another tenfold reduction, with a one-in-10,000 chance of catching the Big C.

The draft recommendation will exist sometime soon, and here’s wagering the implementation regime is manageable. Let public interest and the health of Puget Sound families trump the alarmist clatter.