Tribes Take Aim at Stronger Water Pollution Rules
by Skip Nichols
East Oregonian, February 9, 2011
The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation are leading the drive to push Oregon to adopt the nation's strictest rules against toxic pollution of the state's waters.
Fish consumption, the critical element in determining the new rules, was at the heart of testimony offered by Leo Stewart, vice chairman of the CTUIR board of trustees.
Stewart spoke Tuesday at a public meeting held by the state Department of Environmental Quality in Pendleton that attracted about 30 people.
"The higher fish consumption rate is designed to better protect Oregon's more sensitive fish consumers," Stewart said. "In the past, water quality standards did not protect Indian people. They did not protect our children, our women, our mothers. We must think of the next Seven Generations -- what we will pass on to them -- what they will inherit. They should not face greater health risks for exercising their Treaty Rights -- for practicing their religion and for continuing our culture.
"The revised rules for toxics, with the 175 grams per day fish consumption rate, will change that. They will help safeguard the health of our children, and ensure that our First Foods are healthy and safe to eat."
Columbia River tribes, including the Umatilla, Nez Perce and Yakama, have sought tougher water quality standards after voicing concerns about fish contamination for more than two decades.
Those tougher water quality standards -- based on a fish consumption rate of slightly more than 6 ounces per day -- was the focus of the two-hour information and public hearing session.
The proposed standards would tighten the criteria for 114 toxic pollutants, including mercury, arsenic, dioxins, pesticides and PCBs. The pollutants are blamed for a laundry list of serious health problems, including cancer, as well as negative effects on childhood development, reproduction and the immune, nervous and endocrine systems.
The new rules would primarily affect cities and industries, which empty wastewater into the state's waters.
Mark Milne, the city of Pendleton's wastewater treatment supervisor, spoke at the public hearing. He said the city works hard to remove pollutants and has spent more than $15 million to upgrade its wastewater treatment. Nonetheless, he said the city does not have the ability to remove the toxic pollutants from its wastewater.
"We do not have treatment options to go that low," Milne said. "We have to remove toxics before they enter the system."
The end result, he said, is higher costs for the community.
Milne's was the only voice of opposition during the public hearing.
However, during the information portion, several audience members questioned the studies that determined the new fish consumption rate of about 23 eight-ounce servings of fish per month.
The current rate used by the state is 6.5 grams per day, or less than one eight-ounce serving of fish per month, said Andrea Matzke, a water quality specialist for the DEQ. The new rate was the result of five scientific studies, including four in the Pacific Northwest.
Three other speakers spoke strongly in favor of the stricter rules on toxics.
Carl Merkle, a 17-year resident of Pendleton, said the current 6.5 grams of fish per day standard did not now -- nor did it ever -- reflect the amount of fish Oregonians eat.
"I don't believe 17.5 grams reflects it," he said. "I support the 175 grams standard."
He also presented 15 written statements from area residents supporting the tougher standards.
Tribal member Myrna Williams Tovey has served on the Yellowhawk health board and said she believes toxics, including wells with PCBs, are likely to blame for the high number of tribal members who have cancer.
Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of the conservation group Columbia Riverkeeper, said the new rules are "a matter of human health."
"Oregon is poised to become a leader and the state should take pride" in having the strictest standards in the U.S. He also said the higher fish consumption rate was supported by solid scientific studies.
He said the new rules weren't perfect, however, because they exempt stormwater discharges.
The DEQ said it will take written comments until Feb. 18.
The Environmental Quality Commission will vote on the tougher toxic rules in June and then the Environmental Protection Agency must give its stamp of approval.
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