Pollution From Columbia River Dams Must Be Disclosed

By: Associated Press; Source: OPB

 

The Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. A legal settlement requires the Army Corps of Engineers to disclose the pollution that its dams put into the river. | credit: Amelia Templeton

The Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. A legal settlement requires the Army Corps of Engineers to disclose the pollution that its dams put into the river. | credit: Amelia Templeton

 

For the first time in its history, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will have to disclose the amount of pollutants its dams are sending into waterways in a groundbreaking legal settlement that could have broad implications for the Corps’ hundreds of dams nationwide.

The Corps announced in a settlement on Monday that it will immediately notify the conservation group that filed the lawsuit of any oil spills among its eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers in Oregon and Washington.

The Corps will also apply to the Environmental Protection Agency for pollution permits, something the Corps has never done for the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

The settlement filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, Oregon, ends the year-old consolidated lawsuit by the conservation group Columbia Riverkeeper, which said the Corps violated the Clean Water Act by unmonitored, unpermitted oil discharges from the eight hydroelectric dams.

The settlement reflects the recent tack of the EPA regulating the environmental impacts of energy. The agency has recently come up with regulations of mountaintop removal for coal and fracking for oil and gas.

As part of the settlement, the Corps admits no wrongdoing, but will pay $143,000 and the consolidated cases were dismissed.

When contacted by The Associated Press, the Corps’ Northwest and national offices requested questions via email Monday and did not immediately comment on the settlement.

The settlement will allow oversight of the dams by the EPA. The agency had the authority to regulate the dams’ pollution before the settlement, but it could not compel the corps to file for a pollution permit. The Corps will also be forced to switch to a biodegradable lubricant for its dam machinery if an internal study finds that it’s financially feasible.

The Corps isn’t just a polluter, however. It’s also a regulator of pollution under the Clean Water Act. The act grants the Corps the authority to issue permits for the discharge of materials excavated from or put into U.S. waterways.

“Under the letter of the law, they have been engaged in unpermitted discharge for years,” said Melissa Powers, an environmental law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. “They should have long ago said, ‘This is how much we’re discharging. Here are the environmental impacts.’ “

Monday’s settlement will force the Corps’ hand. To discharge pollutants into waterways, the polluters must obtain permission from state and federal governments. Before the settlement, the EPA knew about the unpermitted discharges from the dams, but the Corps said in letters to state agencies that it is not accountable to the EPA.

The Corps argued in the same letters that disclosing the mechanical workings of the dam as part of an oil-discharge summary could compromise the dams’ security.

In July 2013, Columbia Riverkeeper sued and demanded to know what the Corps was sending into the water and how much of it was going in.

“When you’re not regulated under a permit, you don’t have to say what the impact (of pollution) on water was,” Powers said.

Nationally, the settlement could force all unpermitted dams to obtain National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits from the EPA.

Daniel Estrin, an environmental law professor at Pace Law School in White Plains, New York, said the settlement will make it impossible for the Corps to say that all of its pollutant-discharging dams don’t require discharge permits.

“The Corps’ acknowledgement of the need for permits in this settlement will make it difficult for other owners to successfully deny that permits are required in the face of citizen suits like the one brought (here),” Estrin said.

The eight dams affected by the settlement are the Bonneville, the John Day, The Dalles and McNary in Oregon and the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite in Washington state.

Environmentalists will be closely watching the type of permit issued by the EPA, Powers said. A “site-specific” permit would likely include limits that the Corps would have to meet on the amount of oil discharged.

If the EPA instead issues a general permit, environmentalists would be less sanguine about its prospects, Powers said. General permits are less effective in compelling change because they are issued without specific metrics that must be met, she said.

In 2009, the EPA found a host of toxins in fish on the Columbia River, including polychlorinated biphenyl, a potentially carcinogenic synthetic that was banned for production in the U.S. in 1979.

The eight dams use turbines that have shafts and hubs filled with oil or other lubricants. The oil leaks to the surface, along with oil from drainage sumps, transformers and wickets that control water flow.

Inslee Water Quality Plan Too Little, Too Late

Note: Being Frank is the monthly opinion column that was written for many years by the late Billy Frank Jr., NWIFC Chairman. To honor him, the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington will continue to share their perspectives on natural resources management through this column. This month’s writer is Russ Hepfer, Vice Chair of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and an NWIFC commissioner.

 

“Being Frank”

Inslee Water Quality Plan Too Little, Too Late

By: Russ Hepfer, Vice Chair of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe

 

Russ Hepfer

Russ Hepfer

More delay is about the only thing that any of us who live here in Washington can count on when it comes to a badly needed update of state water quality standards to protect our health.

After decades of foot-dragging  by previous governors, Gov. Jay Inslee recently unveiled his plan to revise our state’s ridiculously outdated water quality standards. While the plan offers a small increase in protection from 70 percent of the toxic chemicals regulated by the federal Clean Water Act, it maintains the inadequate status quo for the other 30 percent.

At best Inslee’s plan offers minimal progress in reducing contamination; at worst it provides a tenfold increase in our cancer risk rate.

Water quality standards are based in large part on how much fish and shellfish we eat. The more we eat, the cleaner the water needs to be. Two numbers drive our water quality standards: our fish consumption rate and our cancer risk rate from pollution in our waters.

Inslee’s plan rightly increases our fish consumption rate from the current 6.5 grams per day (about one serving of fish or shellfish per month) to 175 grams per day (at least one meal of fish or shellfish per day).

Support for that amount is a huge concession by tribes. Most tribal members, as well as Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders eat far more than 175 grams of fish and shellfish per day. Current studies show daily consumption rates of 236 to 800 grams. Even those numbers represent suppressed rates. If more fish and shellfish were available for harvest, more would be eaten.

While giving a little with one hand, Inslee takes away a lot with the other, increasing our “acceptable” cancer risk rate tenfold, from one in a million to one in 100,000. Do you think anyone who gets cancer from the pollution in our fish and shellfish would find that risk rate acceptable? Would you?

That one in a million rate has protected all of us for the past 20 years. By increasing the cancer risk rate Inslee effectively cancels out most of the health benefits and improved water quality provided by the increased fish consumption rate.

The fish consumption and cancer risk rates are supposed to protect those who need it the most: children, women of childbearing age, Indians, Asian and Pacific Islanders, sport fishermen and anyone who likes to eat local fish and shellfish. When the most vulnerable among us is protected, so is everyone else.

To make up for the loss of protection under the cancer risk rate, Inslee proposes a statewide toxics reduction effort that would require legislative approval and funding. While the idea of a large toxics reduction program is a good one, it is not a substitute for an updated state water quality standards rule that carries the force of law.

No one knows what the Legislature might do, but two things are certain. There will be more delay and more opposition to Inslee’s proposal. Boeing and other opponents to improved water quality rules will likely engage in full-strength lobbying during the session to block any meaningful change, claiming that it will increase their cost of doing business.

The state has a clear duty to protect the environment to ensure that our treaty foods such as fish and shellfish are safe to eat. If not, those rights are meaningless. We will not put our hard-won treaty rights or the health of our children in the hands of the governor or state Legislature.

Our treaty rights already are at risk because most salmon populations continue to decline. The reason is that we are losing salmon habitat faster than it can be restored. What good is restored habitat if it does not include clean water?

Washington could have joined Oregon as a leader in protecting human health and natural resources. Oregon two years ago increased its fish consumption rate to 175 grams per day and kept the one-in-a-million cancer risk rate. Now Oregon has the highest standards of protection in the United States.

Meanwhile, the Oregon economy hasn’t suffered and not one company has gone out of business as a result. Don’t we all deserve the same level of protection as Oregonians?

Any kind of justice that is delayed is justice denied. That includes both social and environmental justice. Further delays and weak water quality standards only worsen the suffering of many. Inslee’s plan is too little, too late.

Amazon oil spill has killed tons of fish, sickened native people

by Barbara Fraser on July 23, 2014, IC Magazine

 

CUNINICO, Peru – On the last day of June, Roger Mangía Vega watched an oil slick and a mass of dead fish float past this tiny Kukama Indian community and into the Marañón River, a major tributary of the Amazon.

Community leaders called the emergency number for Petroperu, the state-run operator of the 845-kilometer pipeline that pumps crude oil from the Amazon over the Andes Mountains to a port on Peru’s northern coast.

 

Local men were covered with oil after being hired to find the leak in the submerged pipeline. (Photo: Municipality of Urarinas)

Local men were covered with oil after being hired to find the leak in the submerged pipeline. (Photo: Municipality of Urarinas)

By late afternoon, Mangía and a handful of his neighbors – contracted by the company and wearing only ordinary clothing – were up to their necks in oily water, searching for a leak in the pipe. Villagers, who depend on fish for subsistence and income, estimated that they had seen between two and seven tons of dead fish floating in lagoons and littering the landscape.

“It was the most horrible thing I’ve seen in my life – the amount of oil, the huge number of dead fish and my Kukama brothers working without the necessary protection,” said Ander Ordóñez Mozombite, an environmental monitor for an indigenous community group called Acodecospat who visited the site a few days later.

 

Scaffolding holds a broken section of the oil pipeline. (Photo: Barbara Fraser)

Scaffolding holds a broken section of the oil pipeline. (Photo: Barbara Fraser)

This rupture of Peru’s 39-year-old northern crude oil pipeline has terrified Kukama villagers along the Marañón River. People’s complaints of nausea and skin rashes are aggravated by nervousness about eating the fish, concerns about their lost income and fears that oil will spread throughout the tropical forest and lakes when seasonal flooding begins in November. Cuninico, a village of wooden, stilt-raised, palm-thatched houses, is home to about 130 families but several hundred families in other communities also fish nearby.

Three weeks after they discovered the spill, the villagers still have more questions than answers about the impacts.

“It sounds like an environmental debacle for the people and the ecosystem,” said David Abramson, deputy director of the National Center of Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York.

“There is a need for public health and environmental monitoring at a minimum of four levels – water, fish, vegetation and the population,” he said.

 

Kukama community leaders walk along the pipeline through a marshy area. (Photo: Barbara Fraser)

Kukama community leaders walk along the pipeline through a marshy area. (Photo: Barbara Fraser)

Company officials at Petroperu did not return phone calls and emails seeking comment.

Government officials have not officially announced how much crude oil spilled. However, in a radio interview, Energy and Mines Minister Eleodoro Mayorga mentioned 2,000 barrels, which is 84,000 gallons.

Indigenous leaders noted that the pipeline, which began operating again July 12 after the repairs, has a history of leaks.

Leaders of at least four neighboring communities said masses of dead fish appeared in lagoons and streams in the week before the oil spill was reported, indicating that it could have been leaking for days before it was spotted.

Even fish that escaped the worst of the spill could be poisoned, experts said. Fishermen who traveled an hour or two up the Urituyacu River, a tributary of the Marañón, in search of a catch unaffected by the spill returned with fish that they said tasted of oil.

Some Amazonian fish migrate long distances, and ongoing monitoring will be important for determining how fisheries recover, said Diana Papoulias, a fish biologist with E-Tech International, a New Mexico-based engineering firm that advises indigenous Peruvian communities on oil-related issues.

Key concerns include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are classified as probable human carcinogens and can cause skin, liver and immune system problems, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Exposure to PAHs in the womb has been linked to effects on children’s brain development, including learning and behavioral changes.

“The rule of thumb is that during the spill it’s a horrible mess, and two or three years later it’s hard to find evidence.” –Edward Overton, Louisiana State University For pregnant women, the fish become a “double-edged sword,” Abramson said. “They need that protein source to enhance the neurological development of the fetus, but at the same time, you don’t want them ingesting things that have unknown impacts.”

Mothers said children and adults in their families are suffering from stomachaches, nausea, vomiting and dizziness, and small children have skin rashes after bathing in the rivers.

In this part of the Marañón valley, the nearest health center is more than an hour away by boat and does not have a doctor.

The government’s Environmental Evaluation and Oversight Agency (Organismo de Evaluación y Fiscalización Ambiental, OEFA) has taken no samples of fish tissue for testing, according to Delia Morales, the agency’s assistant director of inspection.

Much of the oil settled in pools along the pipeline during the flood season, creating a viscous soup where dying fish flopped weakly. Government officials said damage was limited to a 700-meter stretch along the pipeline. The ground and tree trunks in the forest on both sides of the pipeline were also stained with oil, in a swath local residents estimated at up to 300 meters wide. When that area begins to flood again in November, villagers fear that contamination could spread.

 

Kukama women wash clothes in the river that also provides water for drinking, cooking and bathing. (Photo: Radio Ucamara)

Kukama women wash clothes in the river that also provides water for drinking, cooking and bathing. (Photo: Radio Ucamara)

Petroperu hired men from the village of Cuninico to find the leak and raise the pipeline out of the canal to repair it. Several of the men said they were up to their necks in oily water, working in T-shirts and pants or stripped to their underwear. They said they received protective gear only when a Peruvian TV crew arrived more than two weeks later. The July 20 newscast led to a shakeup in Petroperu’s leadership.

Meanwhile, the workers’ wives wash their clothes in the Marañón River, squatting on rafts moored along the bank. Besides being the only transportation route in the area, the river is the source of water for drinking, cooking, bathing and washing.

Within a week after the spill, the local fish market had dried up. Women who normally sold 10 to 20 kilos of fish a day said their usual buyers shunned them. Children in Cuninico told a reporter from Radio Ucamara, a local radio station, that fish had disappeared from the family table and they were eating mainly rice and cassava, a root.

Abramson said the villagers’ mental health can be undermined by poor diet, income loss and conflicts between community members.

The pipeline has been repaired and the oil is flowing to the port again, but the long-term impacts of the spill are uncertain.

 

Glob of oil drips from a stick dipped into a pool beside the submerged pipeline. (Photo: Barbara Fraser)

Glob of oil drips from a stick dipped into a pool beside the submerged pipeline. (Photo: Barbara Fraser)

Light and bacteria help break down oil naturally, said Edward Overton, a chemistry professor in Louisiana State University’s Department of Environmental Studies who has studied the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Volatile substances in the oil, which dissolve readily in water, could have caused the fish kills if the pipeline had been leaking for a time before the spill was reported, he said.

“The rule of thumb is that during the spill it’s a horrible mess, and two or three years later it’s hard to find evidence,” Overton said.

But that may not be the case in Amazonian wetlands, where clay soil and high water limit the oxygen available to oil-eating microbes, said Ricardo Segovia, a hydrogeologist with E-Tech International.

The government’s environmental agency is expected to issue its report on the spill by the end of this month and could levy fines, Morales said.

Villagers are waiting to see whether the government will sanction its own pipeline operation and pay damages.

“It sounds as though the state is in a precarious position,” Abramson said. “It [the government of Peru] has to monitor and assure the health and well-being of the population, but it may be one of the agents that is liable [for the spill]. They have to monitor themselves and decide what is fair and equitable.”

EPA To Protect Salmon Fishery By Blocking Massive Alaska Mine

A 2012 file photo of Fisherman's Terminal in Seattle bustling as ships get ready to head to Alaska for the summer fishing season. Hundreds of Northwesterners hold commercial fishing permits for Bristol Bay. | credit: Ashley Ahearn

A 2012 file photo of Fisherman’s Terminal in Seattle bustling as ships get ready to head to Alaska for the summer fishing season. Hundreds of Northwesterners hold commercial fishing permits for Bristol Bay. | credit: Ashley Ahearn

 

by: Associated Press

 

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Friday it is proposing restrictions that would essentially block development of a planned massive gold-and-copper mine near the headwaters of a world premier salmon fishery in Alaska.

The announcement came as the EPA was being sued by Pebble Limited Partnership, the group behind the proposed Pebble Mine, and the state of Alaska for allegedly exceeding its authority.

The state and Pebble Partnership, which was created to design, permit and run the mine, argue the EPA should not be able to veto the project before a mine plan is finalized and evaluated through the permitting process. Pebble has asked that a judge block the EPA from taking any additional steps, but no ruling has been made.

EPA regional administrator Dennis McLerran said the science is clear “that mining the Pebble deposit would cause irreversible damage to one of the world’s last intact salmon ecosystems. Bristol Bay’s exceptional fisheries deserve exceptional protection.”

The EPA said as part of its analysis it used plans filed by the mine’s owner, Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in 2011. That information indicated the Pebble deposit is likely to involve excavation of the largest open pit ever built in North America, reaching a depth that rivals that of the Grand Canyon at nearly a mile, the EPA said in its report.

The agency looked at three mine scenarios, one based on the worldwide median size deposit that contains copper-, gold- and molybdenum-bearing minerals, which was the smallest scenario analyzed, and two that it said were based on statements made by Northern Dynasty, of mine sizes of 2 billion tons and 6.5 billion tons.

The restrictions proposed by EPA are in line with the estimated impacts of the smallest scenario, including loss of at least 5 miles of streams with documented salmon or loss of 1,100 or more acres of wetlands, lakes and ponds that connect to salmon-bearing streams or tributaries of those streams.

The EPA said if the proposed restrictions were finalized, mining of the Pebble deposit would still be possible, but only if the environmental impacts were smaller than those laid out.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who has said Pebble is the wrong mine in the wrong place, said he’s seen noting in the EPA document that would prevent Pebble from applying for a permit.

“Instead, it sets the ground rules for responsible development that the Pebble Partnership, or any other business, must abide by in order to mine the Pebble deposit in this critical habitat,” he said.

The EPA called its analysis conservative, focused on the use of certain waters in the region for disposal of materials associated with mining the Pebble deposit. The agency said it did not include impacts associated with build-out and operation of a mine, like roads, pipelines and housing for workers, or potential effects of accidents or mine failures.

The EPA also said the proposal is specific to the Pebble deposit, and does not affect other deposits or claims.

In 2011, the EPA, petitioned by Alaska Native tribes and others to protect Bristol Bay, initiated a review that culminated in the finding earlier this year that large-scaling mining in the Bristol Bay watershed posed significant risks to salmon and Alaska Native cultures that rely on the fish. The agency later invoked a rarely-used process through which it could ultimately restrict or prohibit development of the proposed Pebble Mine to protect the fishery.

The announcement Friday is the next step in that process. EPA plans to take public comment beginning Monday through Sept. 19 and to hold public meetings in Alaska next month. After that, McLerran would have to decide whether to withdraw the proposed action or send it to EPA headquarters for consideration.

Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble Partnership, said while his group needed to analyze EPA’s proposal, it was outraged that the agency took this next step with litigation pending and EPA’s inspector general reviewing whether EPA followed laws, regulations and policies in developing its watershed assessment.

“We will continue to fight this unprecedented action by the Agency, and are confident we will prevail,” he said in a statement.

Getting tougher on water pollution standards … but will the water really be cleaner?

Washington’s clean-water regulations to ensure the safety of eating fish from local waters are indefensibly lax, everyone agrees. That’s about to change, but without broader cleanup, water will still be polluted.

 

PREV 1 of 3 NEXTNew proposed water-quality standards expected to be issued soon by the state are intended to more accurately reflect how much fish people eat. These fishermen were trying their luck for salmon running in the Duwamish River last September.Enlarge this photoMARCUS YAM / The Seattle Times, 2013New proposed water-quality standards expected to be issued soon by the state are intended to more accurately reflect how much fish people eat. These fishermen were trying their luck for salmon running in the Duwamish River last September

New proposed water-quality standards expected to be issued soon by the state are intended to more accurately reflect how much fish people eat. These fishermen were trying their luck for salmon running in the Duwamish River last September.
MARCUS YAM / The Seattle Times, 2013

 

By Linda V. Mapes, Seattle times

 

Eat only as much fish as the state assumes you do every day, and you’d starve, for sure: It’s a chunk not much bigger than a Starburst candy.

But that could be about to change, under new regulations in the works at the state Department of Ecology. Washington seems likely to follow Oregon’s lead and set a water-quality standard for daily fish consumption at 175 grams, or about 6 ounces, per day.

The level is set not to regulate how much fish people eat, but how clean water needs to be. The standard sets pollution cleanup and control limits for industry, municipal sewage plants and other dischargers to local waters.

While it sounds like a modest step forward, implementing more realistic fish-consumption standards — Washington’s current standards are based on an outdated national average — has been a battle, chewing up years of effort and the political capital of two governors.

That’s because municipal sewage plants, pulp mills and other dischargers fear the cost of tighter pollution standards. Boeing famously entered the fray last year in widely reported warnings about the potential effect of unreasonable standards on its continued business operations.

“We support a water quality standard that protects human health and the environment, while at the same time, allows for the growth of our business and the state’s economy,” Boeing spokeswoman Megan Hilfer wrote in a statement to The Seattle Times in an email July 1.

No one contests that the new levels will in some cases result in setting pollution-discharge limits too tiny even to measure with existing technology.

Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Department of Ecology are expected to announce the new proposed standard Wednesday and to work toward issuing a draft rule after that. The regulations will go through a lengthy public-comment period and be finalized only with the approval of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, probably sometime next year.

The importance of water-quality standards to human health is well known, especially to people who eat a lot of fish. Because pollutants find their way from the uplands to the water, ultimately everything, for better or worse, winds up in the tissues of fish. Pollutants such as mercury and PCBs can cause a variety of serious illnesses and impairments, from cancer, to permanent IQ reduction in children. Pregnant women, the young and the frail are most at risk.

As the state develops commercially, the abundance of healthy fish from the state’s home waters has been slipping away. Toxics are just part of the problem. Habitat, every scientific report on salmon recovery shows, is the most important thing to securing abundant runs of fish for people and wildlife.

Yet the state is losing ground, literally, in runoff caused by development of uplands and cutting of forests.

And even as Seattle and King County water and sewer ratepayers spend hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up Puget Sound, the city of Victoria, B.C., continues to spew untreated sewage directly into the Salish Sea — prompting a dust-up with Inslee, but still no resolution of the problem.

Inslee inherited the fish-consumption wrangle from former Gov. Chris Gregoire, who failed to implement new regulations amid scorching opposition from businesses. As the struggle to get the standards updated roils behind the scenes in Washington, regulators in Oregon, and business leaders, are carrying on with that work behind them.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has issued dozens of discharge permits since updating its standards in 2011, including permits for more than a half-dozen municipalities, a meatpacking plant and other industrial users. The path forward in Oregon required implementation of flexibility in setting timelines for compliance and variances, said Jennifer Wigal, water-quality program manager at the department.

A similar approach is in the works in Washington. Kelly Susewind, director of Washington Department of Ecology’s water-quality program, charged with drafting the regulations, said he wants to take the five-year time limits off compliance schedules and variances, to give regulators and dischargers a way to work out realistic solutions under new, more exacting standards.

Dennis McLerran, regional administrator for the Region 10 office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, whose approval is required for Ecology’s regulations, said he backs flexible implementation.

“We are interested in working with the state on a package of implementation tools that includes compliance schedules, variances, intake water credits, even how you look at some chemicals. But we want to make progress. Otherwise, why do it?”

One place he is not inclined to budge, though, McLerran said, is cancer risk, because implementing a higher risk would allow bigger inputs of some pollutants to local waters. That could put people who eat a lot of fish at higher risk — and compromise treaty-protected fishing rights.

“Some of our high fish consumers when they signed on to transfer (their) lands, signed on to continue to harvest and eat fish, and when and if they can’t, then the treaty right is a bit vacuous,” McLerran said.

“From my perspective we want a standard that is protective, and protective of all people.”

A daily consumption standard of a little over 6 ounces of fish as set forth by Oregon — the highest standard in the country — is less than a typical half-pound filet an adult would have for dinner. And it’s a snack, compared with the estimated 2.2 pounds a day that the ancestors of Washington tribes were counting on when they signed the treaties with the U.S. government ceding tribal lands for non-Indian settlement.

People shouldn’t be afraid to eat fish now, Susewind said. The increased risk of cancer from eating fish today is almost zero — compared with a background risk of cancer from all causes of about 1 in 2 for men, or 1 in 3 for women.

And many common foods, from butter to chicken to tuna, have more PCBs in them than Puget Sound coho, according to an Ecology analysis.

The ubiquity of pollution is one reason Christie True, director of King County Natural Resources and Parks, said she hopes new state regulations don’t just crank down on pollutants at tiny levels in sewage discharges and other so-called point sources, but instead go after bigger sources of trouble in Puget Sound, including stormwater.

Just making compliance schedules workable doesn’t address the problem if the regulations misdirect spending and effort, she said.

“We want to make sure whatever investments we are making make a substantial improvement in water quality,” True said. “If we just focus on the point-source discharge, we are missing huge opportunities. All of these things, arsenic, PCBs, dioxins, those are coming through our watershed through street runoff and rain runoff, these are getting washed into our water without any kind of control.”

Dianne Barton, water-quality coordinator for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which pushed Oregon to get started on updating its standards, and is deeply involved with other Washington tribes in setting new standards in Washington, said tribes want progress, but not at any price.

In many rural and suburban areas of the Northwest, tribes are among the largest employers, running all kinds of industries themselves, and they want cost-effective solutions that make a true difference too, Barton said.

“The tribes have always believed that this is not something we are going to achieve overnight,” Barton said. “We can get creative.

“Whether as we move forward that includes variances or resources we haven’t developed yet, we are committed to being actively engaged so we can move the (Columbia) Basin forward.”

A Wonky Decision That Will Define the Future of Our Food

Governor Inslee Is Now Weighing the Acceptable Cancer Rate for Fish Eaters Against Business Concerns

By Ansel Herz, The Stranger

 

Levi Hastings

Levi Hastings

 

Washington State has two choices: a 10-times-higher rate of cancer among its population, particularly those who eat a lot of fish, or a bedraggled economy. That is, assuming you believe big business in the long-running and little-noticed debate over our “fish consumption rate,” a debate that Governor Jay Inslee is expected to settle, with significant consequence, within the next few weeks.

The phrase “fish consumption rate” sounds arcane and nerdy, for sure, but it really matters, and here’s why: There are a plethora of toxic chemicals—things like PCBs, arsenic, and mercury—that run off from our streets, into our waters, and then into the bodies of fish. The presence of those pollutants puts anyone who eats fish (especially Native American tribes and immigrants with fish-heavy diets) at higher risk of developing cancer.

Knowing this, the state uses an assumed fish consumption rate (FCR) to determine how great cancer risks to the general population are and, in turn, to set water-cleanliness standards that could help lower cancer rates. Currently, Washington’s official fish consumption rate is just 6.5 grams per day—less than an ounce of fish. Picture a tiny chunk of salmon that could fit on your fingertip. That’s how much fish the state officially believes you eat each day. But that number is based on data from 40 years ago. Everyone admits it’s dangerously low and woefully out of date.

Three years ago, Oregon raised its FCR up to 175 grams (imagine a filet of salmon), the highest in the nation. Now it’s up to Governor Inslee to update Washington’s FCR. Jaime Smith, a spokesperson for the governor, says he’ll make the final call in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, as with anything else, there are groups lobbying Inslee on either side. The business community—including heavyweights like Boeing, the aerospace machinists, local paper mills, the Washington Truckers Association, and the Seattle Chamber of Commerce—want our FCR to be lower. In a letter to Inslee on April 1, they warned that a higher FCR would result in “immeasurable incremental health benefits, and predictable economic turmoil.” In other words, the letter says, a one-in-a-million cancer risk for people who eat a lot of fish would hurt the economy, while a one-in-a-hundred-thousand risk is more reasonable.

Smith, the governor’s spokesperson, says the governor wants to raise the FCR in a way “that won’t cause undue harm to businesses. Obviously business has a stake in this.”

But, Smith says, “at the same time, we have people who eat a lot of fish.” Businesses have hired consultants who’ve painted worst-case scenarios, she explains, “that probably aren’t realistic.”

At the end of the day, does the governor’s office have any evidence that raising the fish consumption rate would actually kill jobs? “Not necessarily,” Smith says. She hinted that Inslee will raise the rate to a number close to Oregon’s.

In fact, businesses like the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association made the same dire predictions before Oregon increased its FCR to 175 grams per day. What happened? “We are not aware of any business that has closed that was directly attributable to those rules,” says Jennifer Wigal, a water quality program manager for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Were there job losses? “Not that I’m aware of,” she says. Broadly, Oregon employment rates have continued to trend upward since the recession, while the job availability in the paper and pulp industry, she says, has long been slowly declining.

Opposite the business community are Native American tribes, environmental groups, public-health experts, and the Seattle Human Rights Commission. (In a strongly worded March resolution, the commission said the state should raise its fish consumption rate to same level as Oregon’s.) Jim Peters, of the Squaxin Island Tribe, says the waters of Puget Sound, where tribal members have always fished, need to be better protected from pollutants. “It’s part of our life,” he says. “It’s part of our culture.” The tribes are “pro jobs,” Peters says, but “Boeing has been unwilling to come and talk with us.”

This is a defining moment for Inslee: Where he sets this number, the FCR, will send another signal about his willingness to stand up to Boeing (after his support of $8.7 billion in taxpayer subsidies for the company last year). It will also show whether or not he’s serious about following through on his commitments to do battle on behalf of the environment, promises he ran on. So keep an eye out. And in the meantime, says University of Washington public-health professor Bill Daniell, don’t eat the fish near Gas Works Park.

Could An Alliance Of Tribes And Farmers Solve Klamath’s Water Woes?

The Klamath Basin spans northern California and southern Oregon and has seen frequent water crises between the farming, ranching, tribal and environmental communities. | credit: Devan Schwartz

The Klamath Basin spans northern California and southern Oregon and has seen frequent water crises between the farming, ranching, tribal and environmental communities. | credit: Devan Schwartz

 

By Devan Schwartz, OPB

A second straight year of water shutoffs in the arid Klamath Basin is drying up ranchland and forcing many ranchers to sell their cattle early.

But the water woes have created an unlikely alliance that could lead to a historic solution.

Scott White is the Klamath Basin watermaster. He has the difficult task of telling ranchers to turn off the water they use for cattle and crops.

“It was probably one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to do – it was a terrible feeling,” said White.

After decades of court wrangling, state water rights became enforceable in the Klamath Basin last year.

Klamath Basin Water Rights

This is how it plays out. Those with the oldest rights make a call to the state of Oregon for the amount of water they’re legally granted. Until those amounts are met, the watermaster shuts off so-called junior water users.

“It was extremely difficult when you’re driving up and down doing your follow-up and seeing all those fields dry up and folks aren’t out working the fields,” White said.

In drought years like last year and this year, that means a lot of spigots turned off, a lot of fields going dry.

So who are the senior water users? In the Klamath Basin, it’s two main parties: a group of farmers from a federal agricultural project and the Klamath Tribes.

When project farmers make a call, water is diverted from Upper Klamath Lake to fields of onions, potatoes, mint, horseradish and grains.

Tribal water rights are a different story. Their water is kept in tributaries to the lake rather than going to ranches. That extra water is meant to improve stream health for fishing and gathering on former tribal lands.

Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, says the long-term goal is restoring waterways for the return of salmon. Four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River have blocked salmon passage for nearly 100 years.

DonGentry_AT
Don Gentry

 

“I’m always aware of the fact that we don’t have salmon up here anymore,” Genry said. “A number of our tribal members, elders, people that have gone on and aren’t with us here today, talk about the importance of those fisheries and where they caught the fish at.”

2001: A Bad Year In The Klamath Basin

In the flashpoint summer of 2001, the tribes and farmers were in strong opposition. The government kept water in the river system to support fish while project farmers saw their irrigation water shut off.

The bad blood ran deep — with threats of violence and antagonistic signs lining the highway.

For a long time, the tribes and farmers say they could barely sit down at the same table. Now they’re more united than ever.

Both groups support a bill that would remove the Klamath River dams, stabilize the basin’s water supplies and do wide-scale environmental restoration.

Gentry sees great upsides for the tribes. “We really believe that what we’ve built into this is going to help us immeasurably to restore our fish,” he said.

Greg Addington represents Klamath Project farmers. He says the bill would benefit many Klamath Basin stakeholders who joined an agreement to make it happen.

The Klamath Agreements

“This agreement doesn’t make more water,” Addington said. “What it does is it gives people more certainty. So, we’d be knowing early in the season what our amount of water is so that we would avoid involuntary shortages — and that’s really the big thing.”

Addington says the Klamath Tribes made the first move in their partnership. “They were the ones also that came to the table and said, ‘Look, there’s a better way — and a way to share water.’”

Many ranchers were holdouts. They hoped to be awarded the best water rights. When the tribes and the project farmers prevailed, the incentive to stay outside the tent evaporated.

Support for the legislation now includes a majority of those ranchers. So even in a drought year with widespread water shutoffs in the Klamath Basin, there’s hope for a solution.

An Unprecedented Environmental Solution?

Experts say that solution would have historical and ecological significance. This includes Michael Hughes, who directs the environmental sciences program at Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

klamath_geese
Waterfowl at Klamath Lake. Credit: Flickr

 

“This has never happened in our country — and to my knowledge it hasn’t happened anywhere in the world,” Hughes said.

He argues that the Klamath Basin’s natural resource challenges are more complex than any in the nation’s history. That includes Chesapeake Bay, the Mississippi River Delta, the Colorado River, or even the Columbia River here in the Northwest.

“Each of them is overshadowed in some way or another by what’s happening in the Klamath,” he said.

No Easy Path For Solving Klamath’s Water Woes

Solving the Klamath Basin’s water woes would be a major accomplishment. And even with some momentum, it remains a difficult one.

A related bill was introduced in Congress in 2011, but it didn’t go anywhere. An updated, more economical version — still about a half billion dollars — is headed for a likely Senate vote this year. It carries support from all four of Oregon and California’s senators.

But the hurdle of a divided Congress remains a very real one. Some conservation groups say the bill doesn’t go far enough for parched wildlife refuges in the Klamath Basin. And some ranchers are still fighting in court for better water rights.

In the meantime, watermaster Scott White will keep telling water users to turn off their spigots.

White says he wishes the situation was different — whether through a political solution or even a few more rainstorms.

“If I could put something on my wish-list, the next 10 years would be extremely wet,” White said. “I can’t remember the last time I got a phone call complaining about too much water.”

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.

Study finds oil from BP spill impedes fish’s swimming

A ship floats amongst a sea of spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. By kris krüg via Wikimedia Commons

A ship floats amongst a sea of spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. By kris krüg via Wikimedia Commons

By JENNY STALETOVICH, The Miami Herald

MIAMI — In a lab on Virginia Key, a group of baby fish are being put through their paces on a tiny fish treadmill.

The inch-long mahi-mahi, being used as part of a study to assess damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that spread crude across the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days in 2010, were exposed when they were embryos to oil collected during the cleanup. Now, at 25 days old, the oil is doing exactly what scientists suspected it would do: hamper the swimming of one of the ocean’s fastest fish.

And significantly so. Young mahi usually swim at a rate of five body lengths per second. For perspective, imagine a 6-foot man swimming 30 feet in a second. The fish, struggling against a current in a little tube attached to a propeller called a swim tunnel, can only muster three body lengths.

For a fish that needs speed to survive, this could mean bad news. Mahi, one of the most popular fish on menus, is already heavily fished. So losing a generation to an oil spill could take a toll. It also suggests that other fish suffered from the spill.

“Any life form is optimized compromise,” Martin Grosell, one of the study’s authors, said as a way of explaining physiology perfectly evolved to maximize speed. And if you mess with that treaty of parts, he said, “you’re going to increase its vulnerability.”

The treadmill study marks the second in recent months by the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science that has found that oil from the largest spill in U.S. history damages young pelagic fish, the large predators found in the open ocean. In March, UM researchers working with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists determined that the BP oil also damaged the hearts of tuna embryos, a condition that likely killed them in the wild.

Both studies – disputed by BP – are worrisome because tuna, whose numbers have dropped by as much as 75 percent in the last 40 years, and mahi began their spring spawning just as the spill occurred, sending fragile embryos across warm surface waters and into a patchwork of oil slicks that covered more than six square miles.

These newest findings, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, build on that earlier report by looking at fish as they age.

BP says the study is invalid because, according to the company, the tests used concentrations of oil not found in the Gulf during or after the spill. Researchers also failed to look at adult fish, spokesman Jason Ryan said in a statement.

“The tests only looked at impacts to fish under one year of age,” he said. “Even if there had been an effect on a single-year class of such fish, the study does not provide any evidence to show that an effect on that group of fish would have had a population-level impact.”

After the spill, NOAA began enlisting scientists to investigate the damage it caused – so far, the studies range from the acoustic damage done to endangered sperm whales to oil in fiddler crabs. For pelagic fish, which are particularly sensitive to changes in their near-constant deep-water environment, scientists want to know how much oil it takes to affect the fish and what those effects are.

To test the mahi, researcher Ed Mager first mixed oil from the spill and seawater in a Waring blender at concentrations replicating the spill. He exposed one group of embryos to the mix for two days and then raised them in clean seawater. Another group was raised in clean water and exposed to oil when they reached about 25 days.

Mager also wanted to ensure that no other factors stressed their performance. Like all babies, the mahi startle easily. So he wrapped the treadmill – a clear, four-inch swim tunnel outfitted with a propeller and immersed in a two-foot tank – in black plastic. Mager, who studied deadly respiratory viruses in premature human babies before he switched to fish, then curtained off the area and monitored his little subjects with a video camera.

Mahi are carnivores and foragers, so they swim fast. But when he turned on the treadmill, Mager was surprised to see that the outwardly healthy fish swam much slower. The ones exposed as embryos swam 37 percent slower. Those exposed as juveniles dropped 22 percent.

Because they are so sensitive to change, pelagic fish – and particularly fragile embryos and juveniles – can act as a kind of canary in a coal mine. So the information that Mager and the team have collected for the study, one of several ongoing at the school, will be fed to modelers to determine a more expansive view of the ecosystem after the spill and help figure out the limits for how much oil it can tolerate before damage happens.

“We’ll be a little closer to knowing what to look for and how bad when, I cynically say, the next spill happens. Because it will,” Grosell said.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2014/06/24/4197992/study-finds-oil-from-bp-spill.html#storylink=cpy

Why Some In The Northwest Want More Of These Jawless, Eel-Like Creatures

A Pacific Lamprey affixed to an aquarium, before being released at Ahtanum Creek last May 24.Tim Hill Washington Department of Ecology

A Pacific Lamprey affixed to an aquarium, before being released at Ahtanum Creek last May 24.
Tim Hill Washington Department of Ecology

By Rae Ellen Bichell, KPLU

Jawless and eel-like with concentric rings of teeth, the Pacific lamprey’s unsavory looks may be one reason why populations have declined. Now, some people are taking charge of restoring the fish.

While it’s an important source of food for juvenile salmon and contribute to rivers the way earthworms do to soil, the Pacific lamprey is not exactly a charismatic animal.

“When I first saw these fish, I thought, ‘My gosh, it looks like that Sarlacc mouth in Return of the Jedi.’ It just looks like something that’s going to swallow you up,” said Sean Connolly, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Portland, and collaborator on a 1o-year project to restore the fish. (In case you were wondering, a Sarlacc mouth is a gaping abyss of tentacles and teeth.)

“On the flip side of it, it has these incredible blue eyes. It has this look of something remarkable you’ve never see. And when you study these organisms and see them, they actually look quite vulnerable,” Connolly said.

They are vulnerable. In the past few decades, regional populations plummeted, hitting an all-time low in 2010. In the ’60s, people decided the lamprey was an eel-like river vermin worthy of extermination.

“Back in the ’60s and ’70s, people dropped rotenone in the rivers and streams to try to kill all the trash fish. Because that’s what they’re considered: trash fish,” said Patrick Luke, a biologist with the Yakama Nation Fisheries. “But at the same time, they tried to increase the production of trout, salmon, sturgeon, those types of species.”

As big hydropower project began to come online in the northwest, dams were problematic, too.

“When folks were building those facilities and thinking about passage for salmon and steelhead, they weren’t really thinking about a fish like a lamprey, which can’t jump,” Connolly said. “And so what we’ve seen is some pretty substantial declines, over time and definitely historically.”

Those declines were sharp enough to earn the lamprey the nickname “the lost fish.” Emily Washines, who works with the Yakama Nation Fisheries, says she remembers when they they started disappearing from the dinner table.

“It would be the equivalent, I guess, of going to a Mariners game and not having hot dogs anymore,” Washines said of the lamprey’s absence. “It was so much a part of our ceremonies, so much intertwined in our lives that to have the numbers sharply decrease, just within my generation, is so noticeable.”

The Pacific lamprey’s invasive cousin, the Sea lamprey, hasn’t helped. It has marauded Great Lakes waters for a while now. But here in the Pacific Northwest, where the fish is native, the larvae feed juvenile salmon and steelhead, rather than feeding on them. That’s one reason why tribes and government agencies have funded the Pacific Lamprey Restoration Plan, which involved releasing buckets of them into Yakama streams. It’s funded by government grants and through the 2008 Columbia Basin Fish Accords with Bonneville Power Administration.

“Just think what the earthworms do on land,” said Patrick Luke. “These lamprey larvae do the same thing in the substrates of rivers and streams: they aerate, they fix nutrients for microbes and organisms that feed salmon and other aquatic organisms.”

His goal is to get the fish populations back up, though maybe not to the level that earned them the nickname “Columbia River hot dog.”