Clean water and public values

Beware Business Panic. It creates its own catechism that, repeated enough, is taken as gospel.

The latest example centers on Washington’s fish-consumption rate and the state’s update to human health water-quality standards. The pushback, expressed in behind-the-scenes arm-twisting and sky-is-falling letters to Gov. Jay Inslee, injects politics into basic science, with a business bottom line obscuring the public interest.

The 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 (or three sardines, the operative metaphor.) 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.

In 2012, DOE decided not to align fish consumption with reality, instead corralling stakeholders and postponing a decision until this year. As McClure writes, the drop kick was in response to vigorous lobbying from Boeing, which warned that any fiddling with standards would limit the company’s future expansion.

During the 2013 Boeing special session, the company agreed that the process Inslee had laid out for fish consumption was satisfactory. That process includes DOE’s issuing of a draft rule with two elements: a new consumption standard and the tools for implementation. While DOE will soon float its recommendation, it’s still a draft. DOE has until the end of the calendar year to finalize it. One can’t-wish-it-away certainty: Consumption rates must be updated. And if DOE doesn’t act, the Environmental Protection Agency will.

Four months after it maneuvered the biggest state tax break in U.S. history, Boeing politely elevated the threat level.

“We are concerned that the proposals currently under consideration …. will have unintended consequences for continued Boeing production in the state as well as for countless other Washington businesses and municipalities,” Boeing says in a March letter to Inslee.

The fear is echoed in an April 1 group letter from the Building Industry Association of Washington, the Washington State Association of Counties and other stakeholders potentially affected by updated standards.

The groups 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.

Cities legitimately worry that they don’t have the resources or the technology to meet new standards.

In an April 3 letter to Inslee, Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson piggybacks on the group letter.

“The policy choices you make for excess cancer risk rates and the fish consumption standard will have enormous implications for major manufacturers in our state, including those in the flagship aerospace sector.” Stephanson continues. “We join others in emphasizing that an incremental excess carcinogen risk level of 10e-6 — which we are told you are evaluating — is unacceptable.”

In October, several organizations, including the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, sued the EPA over the fish-consumption delays.

“Washington has known for years their estimates are inappropriate and inaccurate,” Janette Brimmer, an attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice, told the Associated Press. “They keep having task forces and roundtables, and nothing is happening.”

We know something will happen now. The key is to ensure that the final rule reflects the best available science, the letter and spirit of the Clear Water Act, and the values and public health of all Northwesterners.

Washington, Inslee emphasizes, is the innovation state. Accommodating for increased fish consumption is a complex issue with complex remedies that will test that innovation.

To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, we choose to do these things, not because they’re easy, but because they’re hard. And because they’re right.

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