Bellingham council could weigh in on state fish consumption, pollution rules

State officials may increase the average amount of fish, such as this sockeye salmon, each person eats per day. Raising that number would mean more stringent controls on pollution, because if people are eating more fish, they could be consuming more toxins.THE BELLINGHAM HERALD
State officials may increase the average amount of fish, such as this sockeye salmon, each person eats per day. Raising that number would mean more stringent controls on pollution, because if people are eating more fish, they could be consuming more toxins.


BY SAMANTHA WOHLFEIL, The Bellingham Herald


BELLINGHAM — Bellingham City Council is considering asking the state for tighter pollution rules protecting water and the fish people eat.

On Monday, March 23, the council will discuss signing a letter to the Department of Ecology that would request tighter water quality standards than what the department is currently proposing as part of a years-long update process.

That would go against the grain of many other cities around the state that support the plan from Ecology and Gov. Jay Inslee as a compromise on health standards and strict pollution guidelines that affect wastewater treatment plants.

Ecology is looking at increasing the average amount of fish that state rules assume each person eats from 6.5 grams per day, about one 7-ounce meal per month, to 175 grams per day, about 6 ounces per day, to closer match the amount of fish folks in the Pacific Northwest actually eat.

Raising that number would mean more stringent controls on pollution, because if people are eating more fish, they could be consuming more toxins.

Under the proposal, Ecology also would lower the acceptable risk of getting cancer from the current rate of one in 1 million if someone were to eat the average amount every day for 70 years, to one in 100,000 for many of the toxins.

Those two measures fall under the umbrella of what are called human health criteria, which dictate exactly how much pollution is allowed into the state’s waterways. The current levels were set in a 1992 federal rule applying to 14 states that had failed to meet the requirements of the 1972 Clean Water Act.

For some, including Bellingham City Council members Roxanne Murphy and Michael Lilliquist, lowering the cancer risk rate seems like taking a step backwards.

“Primarily my concern is that Native Americans and Asian communities, for example, can often consume 10 times the amount of seafood that other communities might take in,” Murphy said. “I really want to bring light to how a higher cancer risk will affect everybody. I don’t think it’s the right approach for everybody’s well being.”

Lilliquist said the state shouldn’t downsize the cancer guidelines currently in place, even though it might cost more.

“There’s been some resistance to tighten the rules from city governments,” Lilliquist said. “No one’s against clean water, but if we have to redo all of our stormwater drains, prevent more water pollution, it would be quite expensive. My hope is that state officials will see that strong water quality standards are not up for debate.”

Even with lowering the cancer risk tenfold, the new standards would be more protective for about 70 percent of toxins, and in cases where it would be less protective, the state will maintain the stricter standard, as explained in a policy brief from the governor’s office.

Still, increasing the acceptable risk rate above the current one in 1 million is shocking to Dr. Frank James, medical officer for the Nooksack Indian Tribe, health officer for San Juan County and an assistant professor of public health at University of Washington.

“I think if the public understood, maybe they wouldn’t agree that that’s a good idea,” James said. “It’s the most common standard in federal regulation and in all state regulation. Us varying from that is a very odd thing.”

Council will consider signing its letter and submitting it on the last day Ecology is  taking public comment on the proposed rule.

A draft of the letter states that the council is in support of the governor’s comprehensive approach to improving water quality, but there are concerns about loosening the allowable cancer risk rate.

The letter also states that Bellingham council is aware that stronger standards will make it harder for the city to comply with pollution and stormwater controls, and that serious conversations about financial assistance are needed at the state level.

Those concerns are part of the reason the Association of Washington Cities, a nonprofit that lobbies for Washington cities and towns at the state level, supports the compromise presented by the governor.

Carl Schroeder, government relations advocate for the association, said it has looked at the issue and worked with the governor’s office and Ecology to set achievable goals.

The concern for some toxins is that changing the standards to a rate lower than what is already found in the waters of the state would mean that anyone discharging into that water, such as a municipal wastewater treatment plant, would need to meet the “ultra low standard right at the end of the pipe,” Schroeder said. The technology doesn’t exist to meet some of those low rates, he said.

“If you put a new standard out there that ratchets it down, and there’s no technology to do it, you drive a bunch of expense and utility rates go through the roof to put on the newest technology that doesn’t even meet the standard,” Schroeder said. “That’s been addressed largely on this risk rate discussion, which does increase the protections for 70 percent of the toxins. It doesn’t roll anything back, it just moderates the stringency.”

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“Being Frank” Eating Fish Shouldn’t Be Risky

By Lorraine Loomis, Chair, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

Gov. Jay Inslee wants to change the cancer risk rate used to set state water quality standards from one in one million to one in 100,000. That is unacceptable to the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington. We refuse to accept this tenfold increase in the risk of getting cancer from known cancer-causing toxins, and you should, too.

The cancer risk rate, along with the fish consumption rate, are key factors in determining how clean our waters must be to protect our health. The more fish we eat, the cleaner the waters must be.

Water quality standards are supposed to protect those who need protection the most: children, women of childbearing age, Indians, Asian and Pacific Islanders, sport fishermen, and anyone else who eats local fish and shellfish. When the most vulnerable among us is protected, so is everyone else.

The federal Clean Water Act requires that states develop water quality standards to ensure our waters are clean enough to provide healthy fish that are safe for us to eat. But the state has been operating under outdated and inadequate water quality standards developed more than 20 years ago, and has missed every deadline since then for updating the standards as required by federal law. The state admits that its current water quality standards don’t adequately protect any of us.

Under his plan, Inslee would correctly increase the fish consumption rate from a ridiculously low 6.5 grams per day (about one bite) to 175 grams per day, the same protective rate as Oregon’s. But he would effectively cancel out that improvement by decreasing our protection under the cancer risk rate.

Further complicating matters, Inslee ties development of the new state water quality standards to a $12 million statewide toxics reduction program that will require legislative approval. That is unlikely given the $2 billion state budget shortfall.

Inslee’s proposal would also require the Legislature to grant the Department of Ecology more authority to regulate toxic chemicals. That is also highly unlikely given the Legislature’s historic reluctance to grant Ecology more power to control chemicals in our environment.

The plan also calls for revising standards for 167 chemicals that the Clean Water Act requires states to monitor in our lakes, rivers and marine waters. But standards for 58 of those – including cancer-causing chemicals like dioxins and PCBs – will stay the same.

At its core, Inslee’s plan does more to preserve the status quo than result in any real improvement to our water quality standards. It is a political solution to a human health issue. The concept of a larger toxics reduction program to tackle pollutants at the source is a good one, but it is not an acceptable substitute for strong water quality rules. We should have both.

We know that Inslee and previous governors have struggled with updating the state’s water quality rules for decades because of complaints by industry that new water quality rules could increase their cost of doing business. But an economy built on pollution cannot be sustained.

Fortunately, at the request of the tribes, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said it will step in to develop new standards this year if the state is unable.

EPA Regional Administrator Dennis McLerran announced in December that the agency will keep a close eye on the progress – or lack of progress – of the state’s effort to update our water quality standards. The agency has begun a rulemaking process in parallel with the state effort now under way. If the state develops standards acceptable to EPA, the agency will pause and work with the state to finalize the new standards. If the state is unable, EPA will continue its process and adopt new standards for the state.

This promise by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Regional Administrator McLerran demonstrates true leadership. They clearly recognize the federal government’s trust responsibility to protect the health and treaty rights of the tribes, which also benefits everyone else who lives here.

We appreciate EPA’s willingness to protect the integrity of our state’s environment and water-based resources that are central to human health and treaty rights. We hope the state will step up before EPA has to step in to make sure our water quality standards protect all of us.

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Be aware of lake risks while enjoying summer swimming

Don’t drink the water, Snohomish Health District advises
SNOHOMISH COUNTY, Wash. – Swimming or playing in water that is contaminated or high in bacteria or natural toxins can affect your health. Swimming pools, spas, lakes, rivers, or oceans are all potential sources of water-related illness. Recreational water illnesses typically affect a person’s stomach and intestines, causing diarrhea and vomiting. Water quality can also affect your skin or respiratory system.
The recent outbreak of illness at Horseshoe Lake in Kitsap County was caused by norovirus found in the water at the swimming beach. The lake is closed until testing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirm that the virus is no longer present.
While Snohomish Health District has investigated a handful of illness reports related to local lakes, no common cause or illness has been identified. “We’ve seen nothing to indicate an outbreak of water-related illness here,” said Health Officer Dr. Gary Goldbaum.
The Health District is working with the Snohomish County Parks Department and city beach programs to ensure that required public health warnings (PDF) are present at beaches, including this language:
“The swimming waters at this beach are not treated to control spread of disease. Swimming
beach water, if swallowed, can sometimes cause illness because of bacteria, viruses or parasites in the water. All beach users should follow bathing beach recommendations to prevent
contamination of the water and should avoid swallowing of any beach water.”
Recreational water illnesses such as norovirus, cryptosporidium, giardia, shigella, and E. colihave the potential to infect a person who accidentally swallows or has contact with contaminated water. In most instances, the symptoms of diarrhea and vomiting will improve one to two days after you get sick. Some people get dehydrated or have other side effects, and need to see a doctor.
“Lake water is not the same as drinking water,” Dr. Goldbaum reminds children and parents.
If you think you got sick from a public water or food source – such as a swimming beach, campground, or restaurant – contact the Snohomish Health District at 425.339.5278.
We will ask you questions about what you ate and where you’ve been over the past several days to try to narrow down the many possible causes of illness.
For more tips on keeping safe while swimming, see the Hot Topic page of our website.

Key To Saving Endangered Orcas: Chinook Salmon, Says Local Expert

FILE -- In this file photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and shot Oct. 29, 2013, orca whales from the J and K pods swim past a small research boat on Puget Sound in view of downtown Seattle.AP Photo/NOAA Fisheries Service, Candice Emmons
FILE — In this file photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and shot Oct. 29, 2013, orca whales from the J and K pods swim past a small research boat on Puget Sound in view of downtown Seattle.
AP Photo/NOAA Fisheries Service, Candice Emmons


By Bellamy Pailthorp, KPLU

Following the release of a federal report on the state of endangered orcas, one local researcher says there’s one factor that matters more to the whales’ wellness than toxins and vessel traffic: fish.

Ken Balcomb, whom many regard as the godfather of whale conservation, is the director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor. For almost 40 years now, the center has been keeping track of every individual whale in the three pods that make up the southern resident population of the iconic orcas that live in Puget Sound.

Balcomb says among the risk factors outlined in the report summarizing a decade of research, the orcas’ food is what matters most. They are very picky eaters, and scientists now know that about 80 percent of their diet consists of chinook salmon, another endangered species. So, if we want to recover orcas, says Balcomb, we need to focus on recovering that specific species of salmon.

“They need food. And that’s where the emphasis should be, is on enhancement of the chinook salmon stocks in the Salish Sea and the whole eastern Pacific,” he said. “We’re just not going to have a predator population without a sufficient food population.”

The research also shows the orcas hunt less and call louder when vessels are in the area, and they head to the outer coast during the winter, foraging as far south as central California. Toxins are also a factor in whale mortality, says Balcomb; high levels are found in their blubber.

But he says transient orcas are surviving in growing numbers despite these conditions, because their diet includes seals and porpoises, and they have plenty to eat. The toxins only become a critical factor when the whales are going hungry and living off their fat, triggering the toxins’ release, according to Balcomb.

Federal Government Finds Harmful Contaminants In Columbia River Fish

An osprey soars with a fish in its talons. Research by the U.S. Geological Survey says osprey are among the species harmed by contaminants in the lower Columbia River. | credit: Matt Shiffler Photography/Flickr
An osprey soars with a fish in its talons. Research by the U.S. Geological Survey says osprey are among the species harmed by contaminants in the lower Columbia River. | credit: Matt Shiffler Photography/Flickr


By Devan Schwartz, OPB

The U.S. Geological Survey has found high levels of toxic substances in the Columbia River everywhere from sediments to resident fish to osprey eggs.

The results of a six-year study of the Columbia River downstream from the Bonneville Dam were announced on Tuesday.

USGS hydrologist Steven Sobieszczyk says the contaminants –- which come largely from household products -– hadn’t been effectively tested for in the past.

“In a lot of cases, there’s not even thresholds set for safe and unsafe because we’ve never looked for them before,” Sobieszczyk said.

Elena Nilsen is a research chemist and team lead at USGS in Portland.

She says largescale sucker, the fish species they studied, show abnormalities including negative sperm health that makes it harder for them to reproduce.

With a study involving 13 principal investigators over those years, Nilsen points to confirmed links between household products and effects in the ecosystem of the Columbia River.

“A lot of these things come through the pathways of the wastewater treatment plant into the river – but the ultimate source was usually us,” Nilsen said.

Sara Thompson is public information officer for Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Although regional tribes don’t rely on largescale sucker as they do on salmon and steelhead as subsistence fisheries, she says the new USGS study raises larger water quality concerns.

“Water quality often goes overlooked and ignored because it’s not tangible. You can’t see it,” Thompson said. “We can see fish populations decrease in the Columbia River system and the Willamette System but we can’t see these toxics. We have to make water quality standards a priority in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.”

If resident sucker fish are consumed regularly, health risks, including cancer, could increase.

Nilsen says immigrant communities may be most affected; they eat largescale sucker fish more than other groups because the fish can be caught locally and provide a reliable food source.

The USGS study measured toxics in river sediments, aquatic insects, sucker, and then osprey eggs.

Nilsen says the findings show bioaccumulation -– in which higher levels of toxins were found the higher up the food chain you looked.

In addition, contaminant levels were higher the further downstream the government scientists looked, as the human impacts accumulated.

The three sites studied were near Columbia City, Ore. and Skamania and Longview on the Washington side of the lower Columbia River.

Nilsen says the toxic sources observed are often as innocuous as furniture, non-biodegradable cleaning products and even home electronics. Through consumption and cleaning those toxins can make their way into regional waterways.

“It’s made me just try to be more mindful of the effects that I in my own home can have –- and thinking about everything we’re putting down the drains,” Nilsen said.

USGS has provided this data to health authorities in Oregon and Washington, which are responsible for issuing consumption advisories.

The two states issued related advisories regarding resident fish below the Bonneville Dam last fall.

VIDEO produced by the USGS to explain its research into contamination in the Columbia River:


Skokomish Tribe upgrades water quality lab

Charlene Nelson, Shoalwater Bay Tribe chair and Guy Miller, Skokomish Tribe chairman, finalize the Skokomish Tribe’s purchase of water quality lab equipment from the Shoalwater Bay Tribe.
Charlene Nelson, Shoalwater Bay Tribe chair and Guy Miller, Skokomish Tribe chairman, finalize the Skokomish Tribe’s purchase of water quality lab equipment from the Shoalwater Bay Tribe.

Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

The Skokomish Tribe is upgrading its water quality lab to a state-of-the-art facility.

The tribe recently purchased high-end water quality lab equipment from the Shoalwater Bay Tribe to conduct more sophisticated work, such as looking for cancer-causing compounds.

“It’s a major deal for Hood Canal,” said Ron Figlar Barnes, the Skokomish Tribe’s EPA coordinator. “It’s an opportunity for tribes within Hood Canal and Puget Sound to have close access to this type of equipment and help everyone. We’re bringing high-end water quality equipment to a more centrally located area.”

The Shoalwater Tribe used the equipment to research toxins causing reproductive issues with its tribal members. The tribe tested a variety of sources, including water, soil, tissue, marine animals and finfish, looking for compounds that are toxic, such as flame retardants and PCBs.

“We haven’t had a need for it lately though, so now we’re able to pass it on to someone else,” said Gary Burns, director of Shoalwater Bay Tribe’s environmental program.

Without the new equipment, the Skokomish Tribe could test water samples only for dissolved oxygen, e.coli, phosphorus, nitrate, nitrite and ammonia  The tests help alert the tribe to any potential water quality problem in the Skokomish River and potentially Hood Canal. The tribe still has to send off water samples to be tested for fecal coliform but hopes to do it in-house in the future.

“Once the advanced lab is set up, which is expected to be within a year, the tribe will be able to expand testing to include fish and shellfish tissue,” said Figlar Barnes.

“We’re not going to limit ourselves,” said Guy Miller , the Skokomish Tribe Chairman. “We’re going to use it in every way we can to help our people, our community and our natural resources.”