Groups Challenge WA Water Pollution, Fish Consumption Safety Rules

salmonSome fishing and conservation groups say Washington's water pollution laws aren't strong enough and they're suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to step in and make the state change them. State water pollution standards are based at least partly on how much fish people consume - because fish retain pollutants and can become dangerous to eat.

Washington now estimates its residents eat about one eight-ounce serving of fish per month - and attorney Janette Brimmer with Earthjustice says for most Northwesterners, that isn't realistic.

"Even people that aren't heavy consumers of fish are likely eating more than the standard and therefore, taking in more of these toxins than they should be," she says.

States often issue warnings, especially for women who could become pregnant, not to eat fish where there are pollution problems - and Washington now has statewide warnings in effect for bass and Northern Pikeminnow.

The legal challengers say warnings don't meet the goal of the Clean Water Act, which is to ensure that water isn't being polluted in the first place. They told the EPA in July that they would sue if the agency didn't act.

Last month, Washington and Oregon health departments jointly issued warnings not to eat some types of fish caught along 150 miles of the Columbia River, because of elevated levels of mercury and PCBs.

Brimmer says when states don't set accurate fish consumption rates, the water pollution rules are lax and industry can release more toxins like mercury into rivers.

"It stays around in the environment and then, as it moves up the food chain - you know, the bigger and bigger fish - particularly the ones we like to eat have the higher levels of mercury in them," she says. "PCBs can act like that. Arsenic has been one of the concerns; and dioxins."

The Washington Department of Ecology says it's working on updates to the Surface Water Quality Standards. The next opportunity for public input is an all-day webinar on Nov. 6.

October, 14, 2013/Chris Thomas, Washington News Service

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