the film
Commentaries and editorials

Officials Push for Cleaner Rivers,
Less Risk to Those Who Eat Fish

by Scott Learn
The Oregonian, August 21, 2008

To gauge the risk from toxic chemicals in the fish we eat, water quality standards in Oregon and most of the nation assume our diet includes about a crackerful of fish a day.

To Northwest tribes, that's laughable. Many of their members, steeped in a culture that reveres salmon, lamprey and other fish, eat 10 times that much or more.

Now the tribes and state and federal regulators are seeking a tenfold boost in the amount of "fish consumption" built into Oregon's regulations -- far more than any other state. That would lead to tighter water quality standards and, regulators and tribal leaders hope, fewer toxic substances in Oregon's rivers and fish.

A tougher standard would boost costs for polluters but lower the health risks for those who eat a lot of local fish -- an estimated 100,000 Oregonians, including 20,000 children, according to a committee set up to consider the health effects of the proposed new standards. Oregon's Environmental Quality Commission will take a first look at the proposal today.

The proposed standard of 175 grams (6.2 ounces) a day would protect people who eat 23 8-ounce servings of fish a month. The existing standard, 17.5 grams (0.62 ounces), translates to about two servings a month.

"It's just ludicrous to think that Oregonians in general only eat two fish meals a month," said Rick George, manager of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation's environmental rights and protection program. "My family eats a lot more than that, and so do many people in Astoria or Coos Bay or Portland."

Sewage treatment plant managers and officials of river-based industries, including paper mills, agree that the fish consumption standards should be tightened. But they say their plants are a tiny source of most of the chemicals of concern, which include mercury, arsenic, flame retardants, PCBs, dioxins, plasticizers and the banned pesticide DDT.

They want regulators to craft a broad approach to reducing toxic chemicals that includes indirect but large pollution sources, such as coal plant mercury emissions, abandoned mines, contaminated industrial sites, polluted industrial stormwater and pesticide runoff from farms and timberlands.

A focus on ramping up "end of pipe" treatment -- the traditional solution for water pollution -- could cost billions, they said, with minimal reductions in the toxic chemicals getting into fish.

Advanced treatment spurred by a new fish consumption standard could cost Portland $1.1 billion to $6.8 billion in capital costs for its sewage treatment system alone, the Oregon Association of Clean Water Agencies estimated. Those expenses would be passed on to ratepayers.

"The technology is not even known to treat down to the level (of contaminants) we're talking about," said Susie Smith, the association's chairwoman and Springfield's public works director. "And the (sewage plants) are such a small amount of the total discharge that spending the dollars that way will not solve the problem."

George said tribes don't want to shut down any businesses or create excessive costs. The tribes, led by the Umatilla, and the state Department of Environmental Quality and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will work with industry and cities on a cost-effective approach, he said.

A change in the fish consumption standard is long overdue, the tribes said. In 1994, the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission sponsored a study that showed tribal members along the Columbia eat far more fish than the general population.

Then an EPA study from 1996 to 2002 toted up 92 toxic pollutants in Columbia River fish, including pesticides, herbicides, mercury, arsenic, now-banned industrial polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and chlorinated dioxins from paper mills.

In 2004, the Department of Environmental Quality boosted its daily fish consumption standard from 6.5 grams to 17.5 grams. But that was still just the EPA's national default value. The Umatilla tribes protested, the EPA joined in, and they began working with DEQ to come up with a new standard.

The proposed standard is 175 grams a day. That would cover the consumption of 95 percent of the people surveyed in the 1994 tribal study, as well as high consumption that studies have found in some Asian and eastern European ethnic groups. In part, the new standard is designed to reduce the odds to 1 in 1 million that a person who consumes relatively high amounts of fish would get cancer from doing so.

The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs have adopted the 175-gram standard, and other tribes have approved higher standards. The next highest standard for a state is 33 grams a day in New York, DEQ officials said.

Washington's standard is 6.5 grams a day. Melissa Gildersleeve, who directs water quality policy for Washington's Department of Ecology, said the state probably will review its standards after Oregon is done.

The Oregon Environmental Quality Commission is expected to endorse the new standard in October. The agency would then take a year to develop new water quality rules.

That's when push could come to shove.

The Northwest Pulp and Paper Association said improving treatment at a midsize mill could run from $25 million to $79 million.

State and federal regulators said they'd prefer to take a broader approach. If enhanced end of pipe treatment isn't required, an EPA consultant concluded, the statewide cost to industry and cities would be at most $1.8 million a year. But easing up on "point source" polluters could draw lawsuits under the Clean Water Act.

"Everybody agrees you should be able to eat fish out of any Oregon waterway," said John Ledger, a vice president and lobbyist for Associated Oregon Industries. "The questions come when you get into the technicalities."

How much fish do you eat?

Oregon's current water quality standards assume people eat about 17.5 grams (0.62 ounces) of fish a day, about a cracker's worth. A proposed standard would boost that to 175 grams (6.2 ounces) a day, just shy of an 8-ounce meal.

Related Pages:
Council Briefed on Fish Contamination by Barry Espenson, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 9/13/2
Tribes Open Dialogue on Fish Contamination by Wil Phinney, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 9/6/2
NW Indian Call for Action on Fish Contaminants by CBB staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 9/26/3
Keeping Tribal Traditions a Goal of Toxin Study by Staff, Idaho Statesman, 10/25/3
Could Rising Mercury Levels be a Threat to Tribes? by Phil Ferolito, Yakima Herald Republic, 9/3/6
Shampoo, Coffee, etc., Harming Fish in Area Rivers by Stephanie Mathieu, The Daily News, 9/8/7
A Medicine Cabinet Runs Through It by Michael Milstein, The Oregonian, 3/10/8
Fish-eating Indians Have Crucial Stake in Clean Columbia by Erik Robinson, The Columbian, 6/22/8

Scott Learn
Officials Push for Cleaner Rivers, Less Risk to Those Who Eat Fish
The Oregonian, August 21, 2008

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation