Of fish, tribes and industry

The state’s most powerful industry groups, conservationists and tribes are arguing over cancer risk, pollution, and huge expenses for businesses and cities.

And it all comes down to how much fish we eat.

On Wednesday, the Senate Resources and Conservation Committee will hear testimony on a controversial Department of Environmental Quality water rule, which uses fish consumption rates to determine acceptable water pollutant levels.

It’s a complex rule, but here are the basics:

Why it’s important:

Fish accumulate toxins and carcinogens from their habitat, and pass small amounts of those on to the people who eat them. People are also exposed to those toxins through other ways, such as  swimming. Some of those carcinogens occur naturally, while others are the result of pollution. The amount of toxins is small, but the chemicals can build up over time, especially for those who eat large amounts of fish.

The Environmental Protection Agency directed states to come up with risk assessments for their residents based on how much fish they eat. Idaho DEQ surveyed thousands of people, including anglers and tribal members, and held meetings with stakeholders over the course of three years. The Nez Perce Tribe and Shoshone Bannock Tribe also conducted their own respective surveys.

Based on that information, DEQ wrote the proposed rule, which updates criteria for 208 toxic substances found in water.

You can read more about the rulemaking process and timeline here. 

“In developing these rules, our number one priority was to protect public health and that will always be our primary goal,” DEQ director John Tippets said while speaking to the Senate Resources and Conservation Committee on Monday.

The problem:

If you take a look at public comments, almost no one is happy with the standards DEQ proposed. 

According to the survey, members of Idaho’s American Indian tribes eat more fish than non-tribal members. That puts tribal members at greater risk of getting cancer if water quality standards are based on lower fish consumption rates, argued regional tribal representatives during DEQ’s public comment period.

“DEQ has proposed water quality standards for Idaho’s waters that were calculated using substantially reduced levels of protection for tribal people as compared to the general population,” wrote representatives from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation agreed, saying “This is discriminatory, would result in disproportionate and disparate risk to tribal members, and would provide unequal protection as a direct product of state action.”

There is also the question of how much fish people currently eat versus how much more people would eat without modern factors like dams, smaller fish populations and pollutants. Tribes and conservation groups want DEQ to factor in these higher hypothetical rates when considering risk factors, though the agency argues the EPA has never defined suppression rates, nor does it require states to use those numbers when setting quality standards.

An expensive proposal:

On the other hand, industry groups and municipalities argue that the actual threat of cancer is miniscule, while the cost of meeting the proposed standard will be enormous for cities and businesses.  

The Northwest Food Processors Association wrote the proposed standards might not be achievable for businesses. “It should be noted that these unrealistic risk thresholds will result in significant expenditures to meet criteria that, at best, will provide negligible improvements for human or ecological health. These costs do not just impact the regulated community, but will impact all Idaho businesses and residents,” the group wrote.

The American Forest and Paper Association agreed. “This policy would reduce potential cancer incidence by a fraction of a cancer case per year compared to criteria set at (a lower rate),” the association wrote. “But, such a policy also imposes costs on cities, counties, rate payers and industry of potentially several billion dollars, harming the economy of the state.”

What’s next:

The Senate Resources and Conservation Committee will hear testimony on the proposed rule on Wednesday.

Watch this week’s Idaho Reports for more on the fish consumption rule, as well as other water policies that the legislature will consider during the 2016 session. 



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