March 23, 2015

Janette Brimmer, Earthjustice, (206) 343-7340 x1029
Chris Wilke, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, (206) 297-7002
Lauren Goldberg, Columbia Riverkeeper, (541) 965-0985
Wendy Steffensen, North Sound Baykeeper, (360) 733-8307
Jerry White, Spokane Riverkeeper, (509) 835-5211
Tony Meyer, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, (360) 528-4325


The comment period on Washington State’s draft human health water quality standards has brought a flood of criticism for the Department of Ecology. Over 2,000 comments from concerned citizens, public health experts, human rights advocates, fishing families, and environmental groups opposed the rule as currently drafted. The proposed rule fails to adequately protect public health by relying on inaccurate fish consumption rates, fuzzy math, and widening industry loopholes.

Ecology’s proposed update increased the fish consumption rate, an estimate of how much fish people eat statewide, to 175 grams (the size of an average filet) per day. Taken by itself, that would be an improvement in Washington’s water quality rules, which are currently based on 40-year-old data and widely recognized as inadequate to protect the health of Washington residents, although still not accurate in terms of how much people in Washington actually consume.

Unfortunately, Ecology also proposed an increase in the allowable cancer risk from one in a million to one in 100,000 statewide, a move that cancels out most of the progress the regulations could have brought to Washington waterways and state residents who eat fish and shellfish. Ecology also rejected best science recommendations for components of the equation it uses to set human health water quality standards, relying on outdated assumptions.

In fact, under the proposed draft rule, many toxic chemicals, including PCBs and methylmercury, considered two of the most dangerous toxics to human health, would remain at current levels, while higher concentrations of arsenic would be allowed. For PCBs, Ecology kept tinkering with the equation, weakening it until it simply left the standard for PCBs at the current inadequate level. The rule also includes generous loopholes for industrial dischargers.

“The state’s proposal provides only the appearance of new protection while manipulating the math as necessary until the state is able to ensure that the actual water quality standards will remain largely unchanged,” said a letter from health advocacy groups and businesses, including the Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the League of Women Voters. The groups also sent the letter to the Environmental Protection Agency, which must approve the rule before it becomes final and has expressed concern over the increased cancer risk.

Governor Inslee has pledged to approve the new water quality standards only if a statewide toxics reduction program, with the power to help control pollution at the source, is approved in the legislature. But that toxics proposal recently passed the House only after Ecology’s authority to ban dangerous products was stripped from the final bill.

“At its core, Inslee’s plan does more to preserve the status quo than result in any real improvement to our water quality standards,” wrote Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission Chair Lorraine Loomis in a recent column. “It is a political solution to a human health issue.” Representatives from the law firm Earthjustice, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), and Waterkeepers Washington, a coalition of water quality watchdog organizations, called on Ecology to establish regulations that were truly protective of human health, flagging the many ways the draft rule represents no progress towards that goal.

The decision to increase acceptable cancer risk “is shocking and contrary to the law, to environmental justice principles and negates any of the progress made by using a more accurate fish consumption rate,” they stated in a letter.

Ecology’s four public hearings on the draft rule all took place outside King County, which is home to roughly one-third of state residents. The Seattle Human Rights Commission (SHRC), which called the increase in cancer risk “a serious health equity issue,” scheduled a hearing at City Hall last week, to which they invited Mayor Murray and the Department of Ecology.

The SHRC stated that the draft rule puts at risk the internationally-recognized human right to health, subsistence, and conditions that enable health, and pointed out that Native American, Asian and Pacific Islander residents are at disproportionate risk of adverse effects under the proposed rule since Ecology data shows that many such groups consume fish at a much higher rate than 175 grams per day.

Members of the fishing industry and local food advocates also spoke out against the proposed rule.

“Washington’s proposed rule fails to value the importance of reducing toxic pollution to protect our livelihoods,” said comments submitted by PCFFA and other fishing industry representatives. “We ask that Washington and EPA consider the significant ramifications of toxic pollution and deal with the problem head on.”


Waterkeepers Washington is a statewide coalition of clean water groups committed to protecting and restoring Washington’s water resources. Members include Puget Soundkeeper, Columbia Riverkeeper, North Sound Baykeeper, and Spokane Riverkeeper. Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the Institute for Fisheries Resources are also part of the coalition opposed to the inadequate rules.