By Jerry Cornfield, The Herald
OLYMPIA — Three months after a dispute over how much fish Washington state residents eat nearly derailed the state budget, a panel of lawmakers revisited the controversial subject Monday in a more peaceful fashion.
But that doesn’t mean the fighting is over.
Members of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee got a progress report on revising the state’s water quality standards, a process that ties the amount of fish each resident eats with the levels of contaminants allowed in water discharged from industrial facilities.
This matter ignited a political tiff in the second special session in June when Senate Republicans insisted a comprehensive study of individual fish-eating habits be done before serious work began on rewriting the rules.
They were acting at the behest of the Boeing Co., which is concerned an increase in the consumption rate could lead to stricter discharge rules. That could require the company to spend millions of dollars in renovations at its facilities, and some Republicans contend it will convince Boeing to undertake its 777X program in another state.
Senate Republicans, who ultimately conceded on the study, organized Monday’s hearing partly to send a message to the Department of Ecology, which is writing the rules.
“We want to let them know we’re paying attention,” said Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, who led Monday’s 90-minute work session. “I think the people of South Carolina are paying attention to this rule, too.”
He said he may push again for a comprehensive study in the 2014 legislative session.
“My feeling is we’re going to work with the department because we have to,” he said, adding that he wants another update in November. “We’ll take a look and see what’s happened.
Environmental groups are watching closely, too, though none was allowed to speak to the committee during Monday’s work sesssion.
Two months ago, a coalition filed a notice of its intent to sue the federal Environmental Protection Agency to force the state to enact more stringent standards.
Kelly Sussewind, water quality program manager for the state Department of Ecology, said the threat of a lawsuit “keeps the pressure on us” to stick to the timeline for making a decision.
Under the timeline, the department would propose changes early next year, hold hearings and adopt changes at the end of the year.
The standards are to ensure rivers and major bodies of water are clean enough to support fish that are safe for humans to eat, Sussewind explained. Whatever is adopted needs to be approved by the federal government.
Since 1992, the state has assumed the average amount of fish eaten each day is 6.5 grams, which works out to about a quarter of an ounce per day or 5.2 pounds per year
Regulators are considering an increase to at least 17.5 grams a day, or about 14 pounds a year, to be in line with current federal guidelines.
Sussewind told lawmakers the state is not required to do anything, but the federal government might not approve the new rules without a higher rate.
A Seattle attorney who did testify Monday said the state is going to have to do a good job explaining itself.
“There is a lot of emotion around this issue,” said attorney James Tupper, who said he represents firms which would be affected by the changes. “I think Ecology and the state have some really difficult policy choices to make. “The question is how will they come down on them?”