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.

How Boeing, allies torpedoed state’s rules on toxic fish

Gov. Chris Gregoire signs a 737 used to test new technologies at Boeing’sRenton, Wash., facility during “Aerospace Day,” June 20, 2012.  Later that day she met witha Boeing executive who had complained about the state’s proposed rules.Credit: Gov. Chris Gregoire/FlickrEntering her final year in office, former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire found herself in a difficult spot: Indian tribes, powerful supporters of the governor, wanted stricter water pollution rules. Why? Because the current regulations mean tribal members, along with sport fishermen and some other Washington residents, regularly consume dangerous amounts of toxic chemicals in fish from local waterways.But Gregoire’s supporters in the aerospace industry—spearheaded by The Boeing Co.—were dead set against tightening the rules. The Washington State Department of Ecology pushed mightily to strengthen the pollution limits before Gregoire left office, successfully outmaneuvering Republican legislators, only to see the plans dashed one day after a high-level meeting between the former governor and former Boeing Executive Vice President Jim Albaugh, according to newly released government records.“It was my expectation that this was not going to be a top-tier political issue,” Ted Sturdevant, the former Ecology director who tried unsuccessfully to shepherd through the changes, told InvestigateWest.He was wrong.

Timeline: Fish Consumption Rate

For more than 10 months, bureaucrats and business, politicians and tribes influenced the Department of Ecology’s ultimate decision to slam the brakes on fish consumption. Full emails and reports can be seen here.Read the Reporting Behind this Timeline

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 settingwater quality standards, is less than one-tenth the figure used by Oregon.Credit: Jason AlcornThe 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.