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Toughest in the Nation

by Editorial Board
Register Guard, June 28, 2011

DEQ adopts new standards for toxic water pollution

Oregon is known for its pristine waters, and the state Department of Environmental Quality last week gave Oregonians new reason to take pride in that reputation.

The DEQ has adopted the nation's most stringent standards for toxic water pollution.

The new standards for more than 100 pollutants, including mercury, flame retardants, PCBs, dioxins, plasticizers and pesticides, are good news for current and future generations of Oregonians.

The standards are the result of deliberations that began in 2004 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned Oregon that its water standards failed to adequately protect those who depend most on fish from the state's waterways -- Northwest Indian tribes.

Fish are barometers of rivers' health. They're near the top of the food chain, so mercury and other toxins accumulate in their flesh.

Humans are even higher on the food chain. Toxins that are concentrated in fish are concentrated once more in the humans that eat them. Mercury, for instance, accumulates in the brain and can impair the nervous system, as well as kidneys and lungs.

Pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable. An estimated 400,000 babies are born every year in the United States with levels of mercury that can profoundly affect their health.

Oregon's previous water standards were based on an estimate that people eat 17.5 grams of fish per day -- about two servings a month. That may be about right for many Oregonians, but it vastly underestimates the amount of fish consumed by Northwest tribes. The Umatilla, Warm Springs, Nez Perce and Yakama tribes estimate that their members consume 175 grams per person daily -- just under an 8-ounce meal. (The Umatilla estimate that its members consume more than 300 grams per day.)

Under pressure from the EPA and Oregon's Environmental Quality Commission, the DEQ proposed standards based on a fish consumption rate of 175 grams a day, 10 times the estimated national average.

The tighter standard, which will take effect as early as this fall, will protect Oregon's tribal members. It will also enhance the long-term health of an estimated 100,000 Oregonians, including 20,000 children, who eat significant amounts of fish.

The rules drew opposition from industry interests, which warned that the cost of reducing toxic pollution could be prohibitive and could damage the state's slowly recovering economy.

The DEQ addressed those concerns by agreeing, with the blessing of the EPA, to work with manufacturers, farmers, foresters, sewage treatment operators and others who have difficulty meeting the new deadlines for reducing pollution.

That's fine -- for the time being. But the Environmental Quality Commission should be prepared to lower the hammer and mandate changes if polluters fail to make serious progress in a reasonable amount of time.

After recently watching the state Legislature cave to industry pressure and fail to pass what would have been the nation's first statewide ban on plastic grocery bags this session, it's nice to see Oregon once again showing the rest of the nation the way in environmental protection.

Related Pages:
Oregon Adopts Strictest Standard for Toxic Water Pollution in the Nation by Scott Learn, The Oregonian, 6/16/11

Editorial Board
Toughest in the Nation
Register Guard, June 28, 2011

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