Fish-eating Indians Have Crucial Stake
by Erik Robinson
NORTH BONNEVILLE - No one is more closely connected to the Columbia River than the people who consume its bounty.
And, unfortunately, no one is more susceptible to its ills.
Sandy Whitefoot, a 50-year-old member of the Yakama Nation, paused briefly last week while helping to prepare smoked salmon at her longtime family fishing site upriver from Bonneville Dam.
She's eaten fish daily for her entire life.
"I'm not going to stop eating the fish," she said. "If it kills me, so be it."
It hasn't killed her. In fact, health experts point to the benefits of a heavy fish diet - particularly among American Indians, who suffer from higher rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease than the general population. So the beneficial omega-3 acids and fatty tissues in salmon outweigh the risks.
"The vast majority of tribal families say, at the end of that consideration, 'We eat fish,' " said Kathleen Feehan, a senior policy analyst for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Pendleton, Ore. "'It's who we are. It's part of our culture, and it's part of our religion.'"
It's why they insist on the river's cleanup.
A slew of contaminants have been documented in the tissue of fish living in the Columbia: Everything from a legacy of old chemicals such as PCBs that continue lingering in the environment, to new contaminants such as chemical flame retardants now flowing into the river from stormwater drains and wastewater treatment plants.
The more fish you eat, the greater the risk.
The Umatilla tribe has been pressing environmental regulators in Washington and Oregon to raise their assumptions about how much fish people eat. Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality is considering a 10-fold increase in the state's current fish-consumption standard of 17.5 grams per day.
The bottom line: If you assume a higher rate of consumption, you have to do more to clamp down on pollutants coming in.
It would have the effect of further tightening the level of pollutants allowed to be discharged from factories and sewer plants. Enhanced pollution controls could drive up the cost of doing business while potentially raising sewer rates.
"That makes people very nervous," said Greg Fuhrer, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist who has been working to ascertain toxic pollution in the Columbia.
The pulp and paper industry, as well as municipal sewer treatment plant operators throughout the Northwest, are closely watching to see what Oregon does. New and different kinds of filters may be required, for example.
Washington has an even lower assumption of how much fish people eat than Oregon - 6.5 grams per day.
"I think it's going to force our hand," said Dave McBride, lead toxicologist for the Washington Department of Health.
The state fish-consumption assumptions are based on suggestions from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which were based on broad population surveys that included people who don't eat fish at all.
"Everyone knows that the (assumption) is very low and not indicative of what really occurs," McBride said. "If you just looked at people who eat fish, you get a much different value."
Yet, it remains unclear what exactly state regulators can do about it.
Industry and regulators say they can barely measure, much less constrain, the relatively tiny amount of pollution permitted to flow out of "point sources" - pipes discharging treated effluent from sewer plants or paper mills. The incremental difference in boosting the fish-consumption standard to 175 grams per day amounts to $350,000 to $1.32 million in annual costs across the entire state of Oregon, according to a new estimate for the DEQ.
"It's not as scary as people thought it might be," said Debra Sturdevant, the agency's water quality standards coordinator in Portland.
So-called nonpoint sources are a different story.
Much of the pollution plaguing the river is indistinct, and the sources are as varied as the land that drains into it: Pollutants arriving from farms, forests, mines and the general detritus of an ever-expanding human population living in a drainage basin as big as France. Tackling this diffuse kind of pollution is a struggle under the current standards for water quality, much less a standard that's even more restrictive.
The cost of improving land-management to reduce nonpoint pollution could be "substantial," according to the DEQ's new report.
"Very little is done to regulate those nonpoint sources," said Brent Foster, director of the environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper. "On that point, I actually agree with industry and the municipalities. The burden ought to be shared by everyone."
Ignoring the problem isn't an option, said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
"In the long term, asking tribal people to adjust - to live with degraded water quality - is not acceptable," he said.
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs