Meeting the Needs of the People

Fish Consumption Rates in the Pacific Northwest

Wendee Nicole


Environ Health Perspect. 2013;121(11) 

In This Article

Searching for Common Ground

WADOE had planned to establish a fish consumption rate above the 6.5-g/day default for its Sediment Management Standards—used to remediate contaminated sites—when industry pushed back, fearing the higher rate would also be used for water quality standards, and concerned about the costs of accommodating it.[21] "Industry was concerned over how the sediment standards would affect surface water quality standards, and they wanted to have a more complete conversation around implementation issues," says Melissa Gildersleeve, manager of the WADOE Watershed Management Section.

The Boeing Company, Washington state's largest employer, reportedly played a large role in the industry response.[21] Joanna Pickup, a spokeswoman for the company, comments, "Boeing's position is that we support the state's commitment to find an achievable solution that protects health and the environment and does not negatively impact business operations nor the state's economy."

The pushback worked. In July 2012 WADOE changed course, announcing a narrative standard for Washington's Sediment Management Standards rule.[22] Additionally, no statewide fish consumption rate would be named; instead, rates would be determined on a site-by-site basis. The narrative standards adopted in the Sediment Management Standards rule require the state to consider tribal fish consumption rates when establishing sediment cleanup standards.

Environmental groups and tribes were disappointed; they had, in fact, hoped that once WADOE determined a fish consumption rate for the sediment rule, it would guide the water quality standards, up next for review. Instead, WADOE implemented a public process called the Delegates' Table, in which tribes, environmental groups, industry, and the interested public would participate in a statewide stakeholder process to develop water quality standards. In frustration, all the environmental groups and almost all the tribes withdrew or refused to participate.[23,24]

"The tribes are sitting out of that process, and for good reason," says Meyer. "We thought we were moving forward this last year, and [WADOE] slowed the process, and they turned it into a stakeholder process. Tribes aren't stakeholders. Stakeholders are like industry and environmental groups. Tribes are governments, and they need to be dealt with as such."

The tribes invoked the federal Indian trust responsibility, which, as the Bureau of Indian Affairs explains it, is "a legally enforceable fiduciary obligation on the part of the United States to protect tribal treaty rights, lands, assets, and resources, as well as a duty to carry out the mandates of federal law."[25] They opted for a government-to-government approach and have had meetings with EPA Region 10. "They came to us and said, 'In your tribal trust capacity as our federal partner, we would like to just start meeting with you to discuss our concerns, because at the end of the day you have to approve or disapprove what the state submits,'" says the EPA's Chung.

The EPA has authority under the Clean Water Act to step in and set revised water quality standards, and the agency reminded WADOE of this in June 2013. "The best available science includes evidence of consumption well above 6.5 g/day among high fish consumers and shows that the human health criteria currently in effect … are not sufficiently protective," wrote Region 10 administrator Dennis J. McLerran. "Should Washington's process be unnecessarily delayed, the EPA has the authority to amend the NTR human health criteria for Washington."[26]

The state has defined a timeline for revising the standard "and has been involving and communicating with a number of interested parties in a very public process," says Chung. "We think that's a very important piece to developing standards that will last and won't be immediately challenged." The EPA indicated it likely will not intervene if Washington follows its established schedule.[26]