Published August 9, 2016
TAHOLAH, WASHINGTON —As hundreds of athletes from around the world converge on Rio, some possibly risking their health due to heavily polluted waters, water quality issues are in play right here at home as well, according to Fawn Sharp, President of the Quinault Indian Nation, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and Vice President of the National Congress of American Indians.
“That’s why Northwest Tribes are supporting the ruling Federal District Court Judge Barbara Rothstein imposed on the Environmental Protection Agency Wednesday to finalize new anti-pollution water quality rules aimed at protecting public health by November 15,” said President Sharp. “Tribes have been pushing for improved water quality standards in this state for generations. The poisons in the water have unquestionably contributed to the devastation of our fish and wildlife resources. They have violated our treaty-protected rights and we want clean air, clean water and a healthy environment again,” said President Sharp.
“Our water quality here might not be quite as bad as it is in Rio, but it’s far from healthy, and it’s particularly hard on tribal citizens,” she said. “It’s not a problem we caused, but it’s definitely one we’re subjected to because of our close connection with water and our direct dependence on fish for our sustenance and our culture,” she said.
One of the primary ways water quality is measured is in terms of the fish consumption rate (FCR). How many grams can one safely consume? Toxins are far more rampant in Washington waters than most people realize. They accumulate up and down the food chain, from microscopic forms of life to whales. Salmon and other fish are a common link in the ecosystem because they eat smaller animals and they are, in turn, eaten by larger life—including people. “That, plus the fact that they need clean, free flowing water to survive, is why the great Billy Frank, Jr. always referred to salmon as the measuring stick of good health of our Northwest environment,” said Sharp.
For more than two decades, Washington state standards have held that waters under its jurisdiction have to be clean enough for people to safely consume 6.5 grams of fish a day.
“That is an obscenely low standard, which we are concerned will lead to more cancer cases, particularly among Native people, who generally consume an average of several hundred grams a day,” said Sharp.
Following years of pressure from EPA, the Tribes and environmental groups, the state proposed a new, updated rule in 2014 which would provide safer water quality standards assuming people consume up to 175 grams of fish a day, the same standard Oregon adopted years ago. But when Governor Jay Inslee proposed the standard he simultaneously proposed to decrease protection from carcinogens from one part per million to one part per 100,000.
“That could have negated the benefit of raising the fish consumption rate,” said President Sharp. The governor had proposed to counter the action through legislation to replace or remove chemicals from use in the 2015 state session. But his proposed legislation failed.
“Some corporate interests continually oppose the efforts to clean up water quality, essentially saying they can’t afford not to pollute the water we all depend on and that cleaning up their act would cause them to lose business. But that never made sense to us. Isn’t it good for business to keep people alive and healthy?” asked President Sharp.
The issue has kept bouncing back and forth between the state and the EPA. Eventually, Earth Justice, a national nonprofit environmental law firm, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Seattle on behalf of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, Spokane Riverkeeper, North Sound Baykeeper, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, and the Institute for Fisheries Resources, seeking to compel quick action against EPA’s admitted failure to comply with the Clean Water Act. The issue was that additional delay would simply cause increased harm.
The judge concurred, and on Wednesday ordered quick action to ensure clean, healthy waters for all communities. She said our food and water must be safe and free of toxic chemicals that cause harm to our health. That includes rejection of the Ecology rule that leaves unaddressed the most prevalent and dangerous pollutants—PCBs, mercury, and arsenic.
“Whether it’s a state proposal or a federal proposal, it needs to happen now, and it needs to provide, at the minimum, a one in 1 million cancer risk rate protection, a far greater fish consumption rate and ban the maximum number of poisonous chemicals, said Sharp. The fact is there is no excuse, ever, for emitting poisonous substances into the environment. Corporations are calling for incremental implementation and saying they cannot comply with stiff standards. We say we cannot comply with business as usual. Poisons have been released into the environment far too long. If a company releases a poisonous substance it should be required to end that practice. The sooner the better. Otherwise that business is not sustainable,” said Sharp.
“It’s important for people to realize that although Native Americans are most susceptible to many of the toxics in question, and thus face shorter average life spans and higher disease rates than other ethnic groups, we are not alone. Everyone is affected by toxics, and so are their children. No one is immune from pollution and everyone stands to benefit from a clean and healthy environment. For far too long the focus for curing cancer and other diseases has been on finding new chemicals to fight them, rather than on eliminating the cause. That is where our focus needs to be. We need to rethink our stewardship ethics in this country,” said Sharp.
“As Judge Rothstein ordered, our food and water must be free of toxic chemicals that cause harm to our health,” said Sharp.