by Eleanor Hines and Ander Russell
Environmental groups, regional tribes and fishing organizations defend community health and critical protections for the consumption of Puget Sound fish.
On June 11, RE Sources alongside regional tribes, environmental groups, water quality advocates and fishing organizations announced we are going to court to fight the Trump administration’s latest effort to dismantle laws that protect Washington state’s clean water and public health. The decision to challenge the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) comes at an unprecedented time, when public health and safeguarding vulnerable communities and communities of color are at the forefront amid the Covid-19 pandemic and protests across the country.
In just three years, the Trump administration has set rollbacks in motion for over 100 federal environmental rules meant to protect communities, as well as hold industrial polluters and the fossil fuel industry accountable (1). The rules under siege range from decades-old protections to newer ones that have not yet even had a chance to take effect. They have doubled down on these rollbacks to public health rules even as the country grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic. And now, they are coming after our state’s right to limit pollution and reduce cancer risk for Washingtonians.
On May 13, 2020, the EPA revoked its own 2016 decision that ensures protective water quality standards for people who eat locally caught fish in Washington state. This move takes us back to a time before 2016 when Washington had the weakest fish consumption standards in the country.
This shameful, reckless effort by the Trump administration to dismantle environmental laws allows industrial polluters to dump greatly increased amounts of toxic pollution into state waters, threatening communities, salmon, and orca whales that rely on clean water to thrive. Such an attack on the Clean Water Act and our state’s right to enforce it is an attack on our communities’ health — during a global pandemic. This is a betrayal of the public trust and the EPA’s responsibility to protect clean water and public health.
While this puts all the residents of Washington at higher risk, it particularly imperils those who are already disproportionately impacted by the pandemic (2), and other systemic social and environmental injustices (3) — particularly indigenous peoples, Asian-Pacific Islanders, and other people of color. This move brings environmental and social injustice together in a cruel and calculated way.
Below, we talk about how we obtained these standards, why they’re at risk, and what we’re doing about it.
Years of Science Down the Drain
With this latest in a long string of attacks on the Clean Water Act and other environmental protections, the Trump administration is openly siding with industrial polluters who have fought against scientifically supported needs for stronger antipollution standards in Washington. The EPA’s proposed new rule would gut Washington state’s hard-won water quality standards, dangerously increasing the already high amounts of carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other toxic chemicals discharged into Puget Sound and Bellingham Bay.
Water quality standards are a critical tool for reducing pollution and protecting public health. Before 2016, Washington’s standards were based on 40-year-old data, and bore the weakest fish consumption standards in the country. Fish consumption standards set the amounts of local seafood considered safe to eat given the levels of pollution in the water where the seafood lived.
In November 2016 — after years of research, engagement from tribal nations, public comment, and after being compelled by a court order — the EPA finalized a set of water quality standards that were deemed more protective of all Washington residents. These included limits for mercury, arsenic, PCBs, lead, and various industrial chemicals, many of which are known carcinogens. Limits are based on people’s exposure to toxic chemicals through consumption of locally caught fish, and include an assumed fish consumption rate of 175 grams per day and a cancer risk rate of one in one million.
While that 175-gram-per-day standard was a step in the right direction, it still left hundreds of thousands of people who consume more than that at risk. We saw the rule change as helpful, but even back then it was just a first step.
Then in 2017, groups representing the pulp and paper industry, manufacturers, business, and the Washington Farm Bureau filed a petition with the Trump EPA to rescind the protective standards adopted by the EPA in 2016.
In Washington, harvesting and eating fish — including by tribes and other groups — is a “designated use” of our waters that must be protected under the Clean Water Act. Washington state’s history, culture, economy and character are deeply connected to salmon and salmon fishing, resident fisheries, and shellfish harvest.
Tribal members, Asian-Pacific Islanders and recreational fishers in Washington eat a significantly higher amount of fish and shellfish than other populations. Commercial fishing families also consume higher than the assumed 175 grams per day average amounts of seafood. Rolling back these requirements, which are already not protective enough, does not make sense.
The Washington Department of Health already cautions people against eating more than two meals per month of resident Puget Sound Chinook salmon and affirms that PCBs are the number-one reason why fish consumption advisories are issued in waterways all around Washington (4).
In late May, Whatcom County residents were treated to a rare visit of a pod of orca whales to Bellingham Bay (5) June was Orca Awareness Month — a time to celebrate orca and recommit to their protection throughout the Salish Sea. These rollbacks put orca at higher risk as well. Though banned in 1979, PCBs remain prevalent in our fish, waters and sediment. Over two decades worth of studies confirm that PCBs bioaccumulate up the food chain, and are harmful to Chinook salmon, the primary food source for endangered southern resident orca (6).
Trump Administration Rewards Polluters
In 2017, the pulp and paper industry, manufacturers, business, and the Washington Farm Bureau found a friendly ear in the Trump administration, and, subsequently, the EPA decided to roll back Washington’s water quality standards. So three years after they’d approved standards for the state, the EPA launched another public process that should have been open-and-shut. They received over 5,000 comments during the fall 2019 public comment period. (We thank everyone who showed up at the public hearing or submitted a public comment last fall opposing this rollback.)
Earthjustice on behalf of RE Sources’ North Sound Baykeeper, Spokane Riverkeeper, Puget Soundkeeper, Columbia Riverkeeper, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) and the Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR) submitted a comment on October 7, 2019, that included this statement:
In 2016, EPA largely rejected Washington’s submission of water quality standards that depend on dubious math and arbitrary choices to essentially leave old standards in place, while simultaneously providing new avenues for polluters to avoid complying with all water quality standards. Nearly three years later, EPA now contends that this same rule is somehow adequately protective of designated uses and scientifically defensible. EPA’s new position cannot be squared with the best available science and the intent and text of the Clean Water Act … (7)
A pending 2019 lawsuit from Washington state argued that these rollbacks would cause confusion and disrupt two years of already-paid-for implementation work. Despite that lawsuit, the EPA revoked its own 2016 rule in mid-April 2020 and went against the wishes of Washington state, several tribes and indigenous nations, and best-available science to cater to the desires of polluting industries.
From Washington Department of Ecology Director Laura Watson’s statement on April 17, 2020:
It is unconscionable that EPA would diminish water quality standards aimed at protecting human health in the middle of a public health crisis. EPA’s decision is bad for Washingtonians, and is especially hard on tribal nations and communities who rely on fishing for traditional diets and work. (8)
Fight for Safe Seafood Continues
The EPA’s current about-face on water quality standards is the Trump administration’s latest in a long string of attacks on the Clean Water Act and other environmental protections, regionally and nationally. With this move, the administration is openly siding with industrial polluters who have fought against scientifically supported needs for stronger antipollution standards in Washington.
We cannot let that stand. Similar to our successful cases on this in the past, RE Sources’ North Sound Baykeeper, along with Spokane Riverkeeper, Puget Soundkeeper, Columbia Riverkeeper, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) and the Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR), with Earth Justice as our attorney, filed the lawsuit to uphold these hard-won, critical human health protections. The Makah Tribe also joined the lawsuit and we are proud to stand beside them in this fight for fishable waters.
The case will be built using what has previously been stated on record and aims to complement the other cases being brought forward, including those from the state and tribes to increase our likelihood of success in protecting Washington’s waters and people.
“The degradation of water quality standards is a direct assault on the Makah Tribe’s rights reserved under the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay and constitutes a direct attack on our sovereign interests and our way of life. Fish and other seafoods have always been fundamental to our diet, economy and culture,” stated Makah Tribal Council Chairman T.J. Greene, Sr. in a press release in June announcing the filing for the case. “Our people require safe water and seafood to survive. We absolutely oppose the EPA’s actions and the agency’s failure to meaningfully consult with the tribe in its decisions.”
Racial injustice, environmental injustice and the continuation of governments putting the insatiable greed of industries that harm people over their duty to protect people and the planet — these things are all intrinsically connected. And it is no coincidence, as we have known for decades, indeed centuries, that the system is not broken. We’re now being painfully reminded of once again that it is working as designed — to marginalize, silence and oppress people of color and indigenous peoples and prop up industries that put profit and property over people — and we must fight back.
Eleanor Hines is North Sound Baykeeper and lead scientist for RE Sources, a Bellingham nonprofit organization. Ander Russell is senior environmental advocate for RE Sources.