After 20 years of study and effort by tribes in Oregon, the state Environmental Quality Commission in June approved a dramatic change in water quality rules, setting some of the strictest standards in the United States, by taking into account American Indians’ higher rates of fish consumption.
The purpose of the new rules, which were opposed by farming and industry groups, is to better protect the health of Native people and others whose diets rely heavily on fish. Salmon from Oregon rivers, notably the Columbia, are caught throughout Coast Salish territory and form the basis of traditional diets, including those of children, who are more sensitive to the damaging health impacts of toxics.
The new standards come nearly two decades after concerns about contamination in fish prompted studies by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which showed that indigenous people along the Columbia River ate far more fish than the general population, the basis for the previous standards.
Eating more fish exposes Native populations to far more pollutants than state standards assumed. Toxics found in fish from Oregon waterways are believed to cause cancer, and to affect immune, reproductive and nervous systems.
Oregon’s most recent water quality rules, set in 2004, were based on an assumption that people ate 17.5 grams of fish a day, about the size of a cracker. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation expressed concerns that those standards did not take into account high fish consumers and thus failed to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s guidance that local data be used in such decisions. In 2006, the Umatilla Tribes reached an agreement to work together with EPA and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to revise and boost the fish consumption rate.
The new standard, which will be the highest in the U.S., will increase the fish consumption figure tenfold, to 175 grams a day, or about 24 servings of 8 ounces of fish per month.
Aja DeCoteau, a member of the Yakama Nation and Watershed Department manager for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, called it a “critical first step in improving water quality in the basin, as well as protecting the health of our fish and tribal members who eat the fish.”
Others agreed. “It’s not only healthy for fish, it’s healthy for everyone,” N. Kathryn Brigham, a Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission member and secretary of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, said of the new rule, in The World newspaper of Coos Bay, Oregon.
The Oregon commission approved the standards by a vote of 4-1 at its June 16 meeting in Pendleton, Oregon. Vice chair Ken Williamson said that society needed to provide greater protections for sensitive populations, adding, “We are moving in the right direction.”
New consumption standards cut the levels allowed for 113 pollutants, including mercury, flame retardants, PCBs, dioxins, plasticizers and pesticides. The change could increase costs for municipal sewage treatment, agriculture and industries such as paper mills.
“People with permits to discharge contaminants into Oregon waterways will basically have to comply with the higher standard of cleanliness,” Karnosh said in Smoke Signals. “It’s not a silver bullet … there are issues it will not address, but it is an important benchmark that says, ‘This is how clean the water has to be.’ ”
Karnosh said an important decision in the process occurred when the EPA ruled that salmon and other anadromous fish would be included in the fish consumption rate.
“That was a bold landmark decision,” he said.
The federal EPA cooperated with the state in developing the proposal, which drew thousands of public comments in recent months. The rules will take effect upon EPA approval, expected in this fall or early in 2012.
The rules include provisions that allow dischargers of pollutants to seek variances if a facility can’t meet the new standards. Tribal leaders vowed to follow the variance process and the regulation of pollution sources to ensure that new standards are met over time and progress is made toward cleaner water.
Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Chairman of the Board of Trustees Elwood Patawa told the commission that the prevailing fish consumption rate does not represent the fish consumption habits of Northwest tribes, other ethnic groups or those of other Oregonians who choose to eat more fish.
“As stewards of the state’s waters, we need to increase the health of the water, and provide fish that are safe for Oregonians to eat,” Patawa said. “The CTUIR asks you to adopt the proposed rules. They will better protect our people and many others who eat a lot of fish, like we do.”