Water quality protection headed in right direction

Tribes have traveled a long road and back again to improve water quality standards and protect the health of everyone who eats salmon and shellfish in Washington state.

In November, the Environmental Protection Agency finally reinstated the rule for human health criteria that tribes spent more than 25 years fighting for—better protections based on what we know about the seafood consumption rates of our tribal communities and how toxic chemicals in our food affect all of us.

For more than two decades, tribes engaged in lengthy and often contentious processes with state and federal agencies. What was at stake was the seafood central to the economic and cultural well-being of our region.

The resulting human health protections were a compromise because Indigenous communities, along with Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, consume much more locally harvested salmon and shellfish than the general population. By failing to keep known carcinogens out of the water, the federal government stood by while our first foods were being poisoned.

Make no mistake. As beautiful as our region is, our waters are contaminated. Fifty years ago, when the Clean Water Act became law, rivers were on fire, and you could see the pollution flowing into our water. Today, the threats are harder to see. In addition to industrial discharge, our water is polluted by wastewater treatment facilities and toxic chemicals in stormwater runoff from our roads, including the chemical 6PPD-Q from tire debris that we know kills coho salmon and steelhead.

Six years ago, the EPA finalized the most protective water quality standards in the country, regulating some of the toxic chemicals allowed to enter our water. But in April 2020, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler rolled them back because of pressure from industrial lobbyists.

We fiercely objected to that move and several treaty tribes, the state and the environmental law organization Earthjustice took legal action, forcing a hard look at the arbitrary nature of the rollback.

Those were tough years, but finally last month, EPA administrator Michael Regan reinstated the rule. That is cause for celebration, but it’s just one step. Next, we must improve the aquatic life criteria, the standard that determines how much of a chemical can be present in surface water before it is likely to harm plant and animal life.

The federal aquatic life criteria now in place were based on the known science at the time they were adopted in 1986. Since then, scientists have learned more about aquatic toxicology and ecological risk assessment, and these advancements must be used to protect the ecosystems that support our treaty rights, including the fish and shellfish we eat.

If it’s healthy for fish, it’s healthy for us.

We don’t have time to fight for another 25 years over aquatic life criteria. Let’s build upon the strong partnership the tribes have now with the EPA and the state. We’re going to need committed leadership and clarity of action to make it happen. We’re headed in the right direction, but we still have work to do.

Ed Johnstone is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, whose column runs periodically in this newspaper.