Media cite InvestigateWest reporting in coverage of fish consumption lawsuit

Media outlets from Seattle to Spokane on Tuesday cited InvestigateWest’s series of articles on the political battle over fish consumption rates in 2012, a fight led by Boeing and reaching the highest levels of state government.

As we reported last night, a coalition of environmental organizations took the first step toward legal action to compel the EPA to fix Washington’s water pollution rules, which are based on outdated and incorrect assumptions about how much fish some residents eat.

Those that referred to InvestigateWest’s reporting include KPLU’s Bellamy Pailthorp, Lisa Waananen at The Inlander, Ashley Ahearn of EarthFix/KUOW, and KOMO’s Jeff Burnside.

The series was also acknowledged by environmental law firm Earthjustice in its press release announcing legal action.

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Environmentalists launch legal action to force EPA on water pollution, toxic fish

Anglers enjoy the upper section of the Yakima Canyon, near Ellensburg, Wash.
Credit: Scott Butner/Flickr

Saying Washington is failing to protect fishermen and their families from toxic chemicals in fish -— and that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had a legal duty to act within months to fix the problem, instead of the years that have elapsed — environmentalists on Tuesday initiated a formal legal challenge.

At issue is a formula for how much water pollution is allowed by the Washington Department of Ecology, based on how much fish people are likely to eat. The less fish people are assumed to eat, the more water pollution can be permitted under the federal Clean Water Act. EPA oversees Ecology's administration of the federal clean-water law.

EPA repeatedly has told the Washington Ecology Department that the current estimate of Washingtonians' fish consumption — averaging 6.5 grams per day, or about the amount of fish that could fit onto a Saltine — is far out of date. The number is based on "food diaries" filled out by consumers in a few states in the 1970s. Yet studies in Washington over the last two decades have shown that at least some people here, especially subsistence fishermen, members of Indian tribes and sport fishers, eat a lot more — up to 100 times as much among heavy fish consumers.


The Dementia Rescue Missions

Credit: Christopher Sherlock/KCTS 9

On the afternoon of November 23, 2012, Sam Counts left his home on East Ninth Avenue in Spokane Valley to pick up bread from the grocery store. Simple enough. He had just gotten back from Christmas shopping with his wife of 45 years, now also his full-time caretaker. Counts, 71, had been diagnosed with dementia less than a year earlier. Hanging onto normalcy before the disease progressed further, Sam’s daughter Sue Belote would visit him several times a week, and he would still call her on the phone, she says. Sam’s doctor had said it was OK to drive, as long as someone else was in the car. On this Friday, Sam got into his white 2012 Kia SUV alone.

“It’ll only take me a minute. I won’t be gone long,” he told his wife, Donna Counts. Before Sam’s diagnosis, this would have been routine.

No longer.

After two hours Donna called her daughter, worried. “I don’t know what to do. Dad didn’t come back and he never stays away this long,” she said. Three hours after he left, the family reported Sam Counts missing.

The next morning, Saturday, radio and television outlets reported versions of the same story: a local man missing, trim, six feet tall, last seen in a red-and-black jacket, jeans and white tennis shoes. A description of a car and its license plate number was included.

At 9:28 a.m. KHQ Local News posted an update online:

There was a possible sighting of Sam at a Dollar Store in Argonne Village on Saturday morning. An employee there said a man matching Sam’s description walked in and seemed disoriented. A manager at McDonald’s believes she saw him on Sullivan. Sam’s family thinks it is possible that he got separated from his car.

Over seven frantic days, with the help of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, friends and family led a search that spanned parts of three states. They enlisted the help of a family friend who worked for the Spokane transit system to flyer local buses, and former colleagues of Counts in the postal service put up missing person photos in post offices. In the meantime, the family faced public criticism. Why was he allowed to get into the car alone? Why didn’t he have a cell phone?

“He’d been to the bread store a million times,” Donna counts told InvestigateWest in a recent interview. She took a deep breath.

“I shouldn’t have let him go.”

Wandering behavior has become increasingly familiar. Yet Washington is not prepared to deal with this emerging public health threat. Few police departments have policies or training to educate officers on Alzheimer’s or dementia. An Amber Alert-like system set up in 2009 to help find wandering people is underused, its coordinator acknowledges, and bills to create a formal Silver Alert system like those in more than 20 other states foundered in both houses of the state Legislature this year.  Washington is also one of just six states that haven’t even started work on a statewide Alzheimer’s plan, even as the population at risk of wandering surges.

The current approach to safeguarding wanderers sometimes falls short, with fatal effect.


Spoils of the sea elude many in an Alaska antipoverty plan

“You eat from one bowl,” said Ivan M. Ivan, 67, a tribal leader in Akiak, quoting the Yup’ik Eskimo cultural adage about sharing resources, in good times and bad. “That didn’t happen.”
Credit: Jim Wilson/The New York Times

AKIAK, Alaska — The humble pollock, great cash fish of the north, conquered the world through the flaky bland hegemony of a fish stick. At more than $1 billion a year, there is no bigger fishery for human consumption on the planet.

But pollock was also meant to be a savior, part of a Washington-backed antipoverty plan aimed at residents here on Alaska’s mostly undeveloped west coast. A generation ago, organizers envisioned federally guaranteed shares of the pollock catch that would create a rising tide of funds to lift up poor, isolated villages where jobs and hope are scarce.

Pollock did succeed, wildly. The dollars that flowed into the Community Development Quota Program, as the catch-share system was called, created a hydra-headed nonprofit money machine. Six nonprofit groups arose on the Bering Sea shore, and they have invested mightily in ships, real estate and processing plants. Over two decades, the groups amassed a combined net worth of $785 million.

But the results on the ground, in rural community and economic development, have been deeply uneven, and nonexistent for many people who still gaze out to the blinking lights of the factory ships and wonder what happened.

“You eat from one bowl,” said Ivan M. Ivan, 67, chief of the native community here in Akiak, quoting the Yup’ik Eskimo cultural adage about shared resources. “That didn’t happen.”

Collectively, the groups created tens of thousands of jobs and scholarships in one of the poorest regions of the nation. But critics say that community development, over time, got lost in a push toward institutional sustainability — and in some cases lavish salaries for leaders. Deregulation became self-regulation with a board of overseers appointed by the groups themselves the only real watchdog in recent years.

Citing "Orwellian doublespeak" on water pollution, last environmental group drops out of state process

On the heels of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s jumping into the fray over water-pollution standards, which we reported yesterday, the only environmental group still cooperating with the state Ecology Department on the issue announced today it is dropping out, citing what Northwest Environmental Advocates called “Orwellian doublespeak” used to cover up huge proposed loopholes. The group also charged that “Ecology has bent over backward to satisfy pollution sources concerned about having to reduce their toxic discharges to Washington’s waters.”

NWEA Executive Director Nina Bell said in an interview that she already was drafting a letter of resignation from Ecology’s process when she heard about Inslee’s forming a panel of advisers that did not include environmental groups.

“Excluding organizations that represent the health interests of Washington’s citizens and who have expertise in the Clean Water Act and pollution control is both stunning and insulting,” said the NWEA resignation letter to Maia Bellon, the Ecology director.

“Our absence will leave the group without any non-polluting participants,” the letter notes. (Read the full letter below.)


Story update: Inslee gets involved in water-quality rule changes

Gov. Jay Inslee is wading into the controversy on state water-pollution regulations that InvestigateWest first reported earlier this spring.

In a letter to the state Ecology Department (embedded below), Inslee announced his intention to organize an informal group of advisers from local governments, Indian tribes and businesses. Environmental groups, notably, are not mentioned. The process is to kick off this month, and Inslee told Ecology Director Maia Bellon that by late this year he will “provide you with guidance” that will allow new rules to be proposed in early 2014.

At issue are the state’s decades-old and critics say badly flawed assumptions about how much fish Washingtonians are eating. The way the state’s pollution rules are written, the more fish people are assumed to eat, the cleaner local waterways must be kept, and the harder it is for businesses to comply with the law.

Ecology set out to update the rules under Inslee’s predecessor, Gov. Christine Gregoire, but ultimately postponed the changes last June after Gregoire met with a key Boeing executive and a few days later with then-Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant.

Inslee’s letter to Bellon, released late on Friday, calls for the agency to help educate Inslee’s advisory group, “including real-world scenarios illustrating how new criteria would be applied and how new implementation and compliance tools would work in the permitting context.” Ecology officials have previously said the “implementation and compliance tools” could include giving businesses up to 40 years to cut pollution levels to the amount that presumably would be required once accurate fish-consumption rates are in place.


As Factory Farms Spread, Government Efforts to Curb Threat From Livestock Waste Bog Down


Cows at a large Wisconsin dairy farm.
Credit: Kate Golden, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

As factory farms take over more and more of the nation’s livestock production, a major environmental threat has emerged: pollution from the waste produced by the immense crush of animals.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that America’s livestock create three times as much excreta as the human population.  By the agency’s reckoning, a dairy farm with 2,500 cows — which is large, but not exceptional — can generate as much waste as the people in a city the size of Miami.

Yet unlike human waste, which often receives sophisticated treatment, animal waste commonly goes untreated. It is typically held in underground pits or vast manure lagoons, and then spread on cropland as fertilizer. It’s been this way for decades, but worries have grown along with the number and size of factory farms. When storms strike, the overflows can be huge, like the 1995 North Carolina swine manure spill that sent 25 million gallons of waste into a river. Just last month, a Minnesota dairy farm spilled up to 1 million gallons of manure, fouling two nearby trout streams. More routinely, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture has said, large farms generate more manure than they can handle, so they spread too much on nearby fields. From there, the material — which the EPA says often contains hormones, pathogens and toxic metals — can run off and contaminate streams, rivers and wells.

Under the Clean Water Act, industrial operations like factories and sewage treatment plants that discharge through pipes are considered “point sources” of pollution. They are required to get a permit that sets limits on pollution and, in many cases, imposes a water testing regime.

For massive livestock farms — what the government calls concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs — it’s a different story. Although they also are defined under the law as point sources, federal court rulings have frustrated the EPA’s efforts to regulate them. Only 45 percent of the nation’s CAFOs have discharge permits, even though the EPA estimates 75 percent are actually polluting. And even when CAFOs get permits, critics say, their performance in controlling pollution is hard to track and their permit restrictions are tough to enforce.

EPA officials, who declined to be interviewed for this story, have worried for many years about pollution problems from CAFOs and say they have stepped up enforcement in recent years. But the agency’s plans to regulate more large livestock farms were shot down twice by federal courts in the last decade. Then last July, amid continuing industry opposition and while regulation was a sensitive topic in the presidential campaign, the agency quietly withdrew a proposal to collect information from large livestock farms. The result is that the EPA remains largely in the dark about such basic facts as which operations are potentially the biggest polluters and where they are located.


InvestigateWest and The News Tribune win SPJ New America Award


Robert McClure, Executive Director, 206-441-4288,

The Society of Professional Journalists announced on Wednesday that Carol Smith and Lewis Kamb are recipients of the 2013 New America Award, which recognizes reporting on issues of importance to immigrant or ethnic communities in the U.S.

The News Tribune’s Kamb and InvestigateWest's Smith won for “Center of Detention,” an investigation into Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center. Both are co-founders of InvestigateWest.

“We’re extremely pleased to see The News Tribune and InvestigateWest share honors on this important project,” said Robert McClure, executive director of InvestigateWest. The collaboration was the first ever by The News Tribune with a nonprofit news organization. “As Congress debates how to step forward on immigration reform, we’re gratified that SPJ recognized this extraordinary effort,” McClure said.

From the SPJ announcement: