Inslee must use reason in setting water-quality rules

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The fate of Wallula’s Boise Paper mill — and its 600 jobs — could depend on how much fish Washingtonians eat. Or, to be precise, how much fish Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Department of Ecology estimate state residents consume.

No joke. We aren’t talking clownfish here, but steelhead and salmon.

Fish consumption matters because water quality standards will be based on how much fish are eaten. The more fish consumed, the more toxins from the fish might be passed along to those who eat them. So, at least in theory, higher fish consumption would suggest a need for stricter water quality standards.

The state is poised to set the fish consumption estimate to be used in the calculations very soon. Some are speculating Inslee et al. could use a number similar to the one used in Oregon. It was determined Oregonians eat 11 pounds of fish a month every month. This resulted in standards 25 times higher than previous levels.

But those über stringent standards cannot be attained or measured with current technology.

So, in reality, the standards can’t be met. When mills and others who process waste water — including municipal sewer treatment plants — apply to renew their permits with the state they will be denied for not meeting the unreachable standards.

The management and union leaders at Boise Paper are extremely concerned. They fear following the Oregon model will cause Boise Paper’s parent company to shut down the mill and move production — and jobs — out of state.

Absurdly stringent standards will also drive up sewer bills in every city and town in the state.

Port of Walla Walla commissioners are also concerned. The three commissioners sent a letter to Inslee urging him to estimate fish consumption at a level that is reasonable and attainable.

“Environmental results must be weighed against the cost of compliance,” the commissioners wrote. “It is unreasonable to impose significant new costs on local governments, citizens and businesses if the environmental progress is so miniscule that it can barely be measured.”

Chris McCabe, executive director of the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association, was singing the same tune when in Walla Walla on Thursday with Boise Paper representatives lobbying for the governor to look at the big picture. McCabe said mills already take water quality seriously for a variety of reasons beyond business. Those who work at the plants live in those communities and have no interest in contaminating themselves or their families.

He and the mills he represents want the governor to set reasonable standards or delay setting standards until the full effect — good or bad — from the Oregon standard imposed in 2011 can be analyzed.

It seems silly to base important public policy on a number pulled from thin air.

Let’s hope Inslee takes it seriously and considers the full ramification of the decision.

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