Seattle Times Op: More mercury in the fish we eat? Don’t let the EPA weaken water-quality rules

Puget Sound, the Columbia River, Lake Washington, the San Juan Islands, the Spokane River, Lake Chelan: Washington state is known for some of the most beautiful and iconic waterways in the country. Significant steps have been taken to recover these waters, each of which has a fish consumption advisory due to toxic pollution. So why would the  Environmental Protection Agency move to dramatically weaken limits on three of the most dangerous and persistent chemicals — mercury, arsenic and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) — thus preventing us from moving forward with stronger controls that are essential protections for human health?

It’s a question to take to the EPA. In an agency decision dated May 10, the Trump administration revealed its next target in a nationwide assault on environmental regulation: Washington state waters. The agency signaled its intentions to revise or withdraw Washington water-quality standards. If this happens, current hard-won standards designed to protect local seafood consumers will be lost, and the amounts of toxics allowed in Washington’s waters could increase dramatically.

Gov. Jay Inslee, who has acted against Trump’s other environmental rollbacks, was quick to release a statement with Attorney General Bob Ferguson opposing the EPA decision. Ferguson then filed suit June 6 in an attempt to block the Trump administration’s misguided proposal.

While this proposed reversal raises environmental alarms, it will also make seafood we eat and the water we drink less safe. In dismantling an environmental standard known as “Fish Consumption Rule,” the agency would allow for up to 25 times more toxic chemicals like mercury, lead and cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. In the case of arsenic, it would perversely allow increased discharges of this dangerous toxic heavy metal in our waters because it is also “naturally occurring.” This move doesn’t merely raise questions about the administration’s concern for public health. It signals a blatant disregard for it.

Who is most vulnerable? Anyone who consumes locally caught fish. This applies especially to tribal communities, for whom fishing is critical not only for subsistence, but for ceremonial, religious and commercial purposes. Sharing and eating fish is an integral part of tribal culture and social fabric here in the Northwest, and it is well documented that tribal communities consume fish at a higher-than-average rate. Current water-quality standards restrict pollutants that are harmful to fish, and also take into account chemical bioaccumulation to protect the people who eat these foods. Previously, the EPA noted that tribes and Washington residents have a right not only to fish, but also to avoid exposure to unacceptable health risks when consuming local fish and seafood.

Before the current administration’s attempt at rolling back protective water-quality standards, the EPA stated its intent to protect people from cancer and other harmful effects that can arise from consuming polluted fish, shellfish and drinking water. However, most of our local waterways already have fish consumption advisories due to toxic pollution, warning people to limit their intake of certain species.

Toxic pollutants in Puget Sound waters severely impact the survival of our endangered southern resident orca population, as well as their primary prey — chinook salmon. Our southern resident orcas are considered to be among the most PCB-contaminated mammals in the world. Gov. Inslee has been very vocal about protecting orcas and calling for increased protections to reduce toxic contamination. Vigorously opposing EPA’s proposed rollbacks to the fish-consumption rule is an important way he can act to protect these beloved marine mammals that are a keystone species for our entire ecosystem.

This issue is critical to people and communities across the state. The Trump administration is poised to turn its back on Washington citizens and human health in order to line the pockets of corporate interests pushing for the action. We oppose the EPA push to repeal effective water-quality safeguards. We thank Gov. Inslee and state ecology director Maia Bellon for standing up and staying strong defending what is right: clean water for all.

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