Oregon Moving to Implement New Water Pollution Standards

The State of Oregon recently established the strictest guidelines for water pollution in the United States. The revised standards are aimed to protect people who consume fish as a large portion of their diet. Oregon’s Native American population is partly behind the push to decrease tolerance for contaminants in water; most tribes in the area have a long tradition of fishing that predates the settling of the area by Europeans.

Oregon’s existing water quality standards are built on an assumption that people eat 17.5 grams of fish a day, relatively small amount and typical of assumptions in most states. The proposed standard increases the assumed fish consumption to 175 grams a day, typical of a diet where most protein comes from fish.

The change would significantly tighten Oregon’s human health criteria for a large number of pollutants, including mercury, flame retardants, PCBs, dioxins, plasticizers and pesticides. The stricter standards could increase the costs for industries like paper mills and for municipal sewage treatment plants, increasing consumer sewer rates. On the flipside, the new rules should also lower the health risks for those who eat large amounts local fish; it is estimated that 100,000 Oregonians, including 20,000 children have a primary diet based around fish, according to a committee set up to consider the health effects of the new standard.

In the neighboring state of Washington, environmentalists and Native Americans are taking note of the proposed Oregon law; the Lummi tribe, specifically, is advocating for similar strict clean water laws. Their position is that selecting “safe” toxin levels based on a significantly lower intake of fish compared to what the native population actually consumes defies common sense and puts their health at a disproportionate risk.

The Environmental Protection Agency has already approved Oregon’s new standards and Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality will implement them as water quality permits come up for renewal. While some may find these new rules to be too strict, those that consume fish on a routine basis likely support the rules overwhelmingly.