Business Interests Trump Health Concerns in Fish Consumption Fight

The current estimate of how much fish people eat in Washington State, a key criteria for setting
water quality standards, is less than one-tenth the figure used by Oregon.
Credit: Jason Alcorn

The Washington State Department of Ecology has known since the 1990s that its water-pollution limits have meant some Washingtonians regularly consume dangerous amounts of toxic chemicals in fish from local waterways.

At least twice, Ecology has been told by its overseers at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to fix the problem and better protect people’s health. Ecology was close to finally doing that last year — until Boeing and other business interests launched an intense lobbying campaign aimed not just at Ecology but also at the Washington Legislature and then-Gov. Christine Gregoire. That is the picture that emerges from recent interviews as well as government documents obtained by InvestigateWest under the Washington Public Records Law.

The problem lies in Ecology’s estimate of how much fish people eat. The lower the amount, the more water pollution Ecology can legally allow. So by assuming that people eat the equivalent of just one fish meal per month, Ecology is able to set less stringent pollution limits.

Meanwhile, citing the health benefits of fish, the state Department of Health advises people to eat fish twice a week, eight times as often as the official estimate of actual consumption. The state knows that some members of Indian tribes, immigrants and other fishermen consume locally caught seafood even more often than that and are therefore at greater risk of cancer, neurological damage and other maladies.

The Boeing Co. looms large in this story. In June 2012, Boeing said if Ecology went ahead with plans to make fish safer to eat, it would “cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars and severely hamper its ability to increase production in Renton and make future expansion elsewhere in the state cost prohibitive,” according to a Gregoire aide’s reconstruction of a conversation with a Boeing executive that month.

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Duwamish Valley residents face health threats, study shows as EPA chooses Superfund cleanup plan

Debris along the Duwamish River.
Credit: Paul Joseph Brown/InvestigateWest

The residents of south Seattle’s 98108 ZIP code, some living cheek-by-jowl with the Duwamish River Superfund site, face a high degree of environmental health threats and are likely to live sicker and die younger than residents of other Seattle neighborhoods, says a new report by two nonprofit groups.

Researchers studied 10 representative Seattle ZIP codes and analyzed data to assign each a “cumulative health impact score” that considers pollution threats as well as socioeconomic and other factors. 98108 had the worst score of the ZIP codes studied, says the report by the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/Technical Advisory Group and Just Health Action.


In this map from the report showing cumulative impact score by ZIP Code,
a darker color indicates a higher score.

The report admits that by focusing at the ZIP code level, the analysis may obscure even more worrisome threats affecting specific neighborhoods within the area, especially South Park and Georgetown.

“Duwamish Valley residents are more likely to live in poverty, be foreign born, have no health insurance or leisure time, and are more likely to be sick. Georgetown and South Park residents have up to a 13-year shorter life expectancy (at birth) than wealthier parts of Seattle,” the report says.

Researchers gathered data on number of indicators including the incidence of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, lung cancer and children with asthma; air pollution readings; the presence of sensitive populations of children and older people; hospitalization rates; availability of parks; and poverty rates.

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What is your experience with foster care?

If you have a story about foster care or what happens after teens leave the system and start an independent life, we want to hear it. This is all confidential. If we want to use your story, we'll make sure to talk to you first.

View the form.

Aged Out and Alone at 18

Two bills before the state legislature in 2013 would extend foster care benefits to age 21.
Credit: Jon Connell/Flickr

Growing up in a trailer with her uncle and grandfather, Sharayah Lane always knew what her 18th birthday would mean: homelessness.

As expected, when that day came it was marked not by parties, but an immediate end to the foster-care reimbursement checks that allowed Lane’s relatives to cover the costs of sheltering her. No more checks meant no more housing.End of the Line

“It was just common knowledge – when you turn 18, you’re done,” Lane said. “After the checks stopped coming, we all went our separate ways. For me, that was couch-surfing – keeping my stuff in my backpack and staying wherever I could.”

This phenomenon, known as “aging out” of foster care, is standard for nearly 600 wards of the state who turn 18 each year, and the results are no surprise: Former foster youth have off-the-charts rates of homelessness and post-traumatic stress. They end up in jail, prison or hospital emergency rooms far more frequently than other teens their age. Many depend on welfare and food stamps. Most never attend college.

Two bills now before the state legislature, including one that got a Senate committee hearing this week (SB 5405), seek to ease this rocky transition by extending monthly foster care benefits to age 21. 

Much has been made of millennials as an entitled generation. In reality, Americans aged 20 to 24 face an unemployment rate of 13.2 percent, far higher than the national average. And prospects for their financial rebound are grim – even among the educated. Economists say that graduating from college into a recession can depress future earnings up to 20 percent.

Take all that and consider the outlook for foster youth, most of whom have neither parents nor college degrees.

Lane, for example, spent the four years between 18 and 22 trying, and failing, to find a foothold. She worked as a day laborer, dabbled in selling drugs, then went back to couch-surfing.

“I was trying to get by any way that I could,” she said.

At 21, Lane won admittance to community college with a GED and full-ride scholarship, but soon dropped out, overwhelmed by the pressures of living on her own as an adult when she was, by most measures, still just a kid. Transitional housing, where she stayed, off and on, with two dozen other former foster youth, represented comparative stability.

Across the political spectrum there is wide agreement that the Senate legislation and its House companion (HB 1302) make sense – philosophically, at least.

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Robert McClure's picture

Changes at InvestigateWest

We’re bidding a grateful farewell this week to our executive editor and one of InvestigateWest’s co-founders, Carol Smith, who is leaving to become an editor at KUOW.

Carol has been instrumental in the success we’ve achieved over the last four years. She helped us to pioneer the concept of a journalism studio here in Seattle, and wrote or edited some of our most memorable stories, including an award-winning investigation into the workplace dangers of chemotherapy drugs. That one led to two new state laws in Washington – one the first of its kind in the nation.

Carol will be missed, but she won’t be far. She plans to stay involved with InvestigateWest as a contributing editor and an advisor. And we will continue to collaborate with Carol, Jim Gates, and the rest of the news desk at KUOW as we have regularly since our inception.

So what comes next at InvestigateWest?

It would be impossible to replace Carol. But we will be hiring a new investigative reporter. If you have proven investigative skills and excel at generating story ideas and executing them, get in touch.  Data skills are a big plus. Enthusiasm for our mission to sustain and modernize public interest reporting in the Northwest is required.

Please join us in giving Carol a hearty thank-you and wishing her the best at KUOW.

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Who gets rich when halibut goes from $3.99 to $28 a pound in two decades?

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Two decades ago a pound of halibut sold in frozen bricks for less than $4. Then the government privatized the industry, putting in place a first-in-the-nation system called catch shares that stabilized the fishery and sent prices soaring. But it was a move that created basic inequities in a system that has yet to right itself. 

This week in Seattle Weekly, Lee van der Voo has the story for InvestigateWest.

Guys like Jared Bright vie for control of the industry's lower rungs, the only rungs that seem to be left. Simply put, they're renters. They don't own the halibut, not even when it lands in their boats. The fish are instead the property of a generation of wealthy owners, most of whom did nothing more than fish in the right place at the right time to get a stake.

Their ownership rights came courtesy of the federal government. At the time, it was a good idea. In ways, it still is. But it's created what amounts to a feudal system over a natural resource.

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As Alaska's deadliest catches become more regulated, "Slipper Skippers" exploit those who actually fish

Halibut fishing is cold, hard work, but lacks the TV-ready sex appeal of Alaskan crab.
Courtesy of Lee van der Voo.

Before you feel sorry for anybody in this story, meet Jared Bright. And remember your first impression, because he's eventully going to call himself a serf. For the moment, he's just a guy you're about to get jealous of. That's because he's 38 years old, and industry sources say he's worth about $2 million.

Between his ordinary upbringing in Ketchikan, Alaska, and the day Bright invested in his fishing boat, there was no winning lottery ticket, no trust fund. He's just a fisherman; been one for 21 years. And lucky for him, he happens to be good at it. If he can keep the bearded men in the embroidered shirts out of his game, he's going to be even better.

But before we get into the bearded men, get rid of the image of the Gorton's fisherman. Forget the fish sticks, the wooden captain's wheel, and that wholesome picture of the guy on the yellow box. Instead, put yourself on one side of the Whole Foods fish counter, a chunk of halibut in the middle—price tag: $28 a pound—and think of Bright as the guy on the other side, the guy who's going to get it to you. Think six feet two inches of lean muscle, pierced ears, and an auburn mug and sideburns, dressed in black North Face and talking like 10 cups of coffee while texting on a smartphone.

This is your fisherman. You are as likely to see him driving around West Seattle in his Smart Car as out on the open ocean. And if you thought The Deadliest Catch was wild, the game he plays to bring you this latest item in white-tablecloth seafood is even weirder.

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The fight for floodplains

Before Hurricane Sandy struck this fall, the National Flood Insurance Program was already about $17.8 billion in debt — an amount that will surely grow as Sandy-related claims are settled.

But floodplain development has ecological consequences, too, which are the crux of lawsuits that have been filed against the EPA up and down the West Coast.

Lisa Stiffler reports for InvestigateWest in the current issue of High Country News:

“Every time it rains,” she says, “you’re stressing.” At least five times since she and her husband, Brian, moved here, heavy rains have sent the river raging over its banks. After a 1995 flood, they raised the house on a 9-foot-tall concrete foundation. Then a 2003 flood dumped enough mud in their basement to fill 60 wheelbarrows. “Goopy, gloppy, sticky stuff,” she says. “It’s horrible.”

Many of her neighbors’ houses are also perched on stacked foundations, and attempts have been made to barricade the river with levees. But the most effective flood-protection measures have proven to be strict rules on reconstruction and a ban on new building enacted by the state decades ago, restrictions that apply only to a handful of the state’s most flood-prone areas.

Now the National Wildlife Federation and other environmental groups want to see stronger development controls for more Western floodplains. It’s increasingly clear that construction in floodplains is not only dangerous for people, it also harms habitat for salmon and other animals protected by the Endangered Species Act, including orca, Mexican spotted owls, jaguar and two species of springsnails. And the anxiety over floodplain construction is likely to rise as climate change raises flood risks.

Read Lisa's full story at High Country News.

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