SOMETIME soon, Gov. Jay Inslee will decide the biggest, most-fraught-with-peril question of his term: How much fish do Washingtonians eat?

It is a silly-sounding question that — if answered indelicately — means big trouble for Washington industry, for cities and counties, and maybe for citizens, too, once they get their sewer bills.

Federal regulators, environmental groups and tribes are pressuring the state to dramatically increase the arbitrary number it uses to represent fish consumption by Washington residents. That number will be used to set new water-quality rules for the state of Washington. These interests are after a 25-fold increase in the fish-eating figure — translating to a 25-fold increase in water-quality standards.

On Tuesday, the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency warned that if the state doesn’t comply, it would seek a ruling from Washington, D.C., that the fish estimate is inadequate.

    Most Read Stories

The Inslee administration should resist this intimidation from the EPA regional office. We all can agree that clean water is something we value, and tougher rules might be in order if the case can be made. But they need to be practical, achievable and understandable. This idea is none of the above.

Oregon has already gone along with the regional office. In 2011, it adopted the highest fish-consumption estimate of any state in the country. Business and local governments say they cannot possibly comply with the rules that resulted — no technology can get water that clean. Environmental groups threaten lawsuits that could shut down municipal sewage plants; bigger problems are around the corner. Same thing could happen here.

The problem is less about human health than runaway regulation. Basic scientific questions haven’t been asked, such as whether these higher standards would improve public health in a noticeable way. The effort is being justified as a matter of “environmental justice,” a sense that the old fish-consumption number is insensitive to tribes, whose members consume more fish than the general population.

Currently, Washington uses a national average consumption figure EPA developed in the early 1990s: 6.5 grams a day. That’s about a half-pound a month, and maybe it is a bit low. Yet given the way water regulations are drafted, it still is high enough to ensure reasonable standards for all. At least other EPA regional offices seem to think so.

Oregon has adopted a figure of 175 grams a day, about 12 pounds a month. That’s nearly six times higher than the next state, New York, at 33 grams. Translate that astounding Oregon number into regulation and you get a multibillion-dollar absurdity. Discharges from factories and sewage plants would have to be cleaner than the waterways into which they flow. Rainwater runoff would have to be cleaner than when it falls from the sky. Bad news for anyone who makes anything in Washington, or even flushes a toilet — Bellingham estimates sewer bills would rise from $35 to $200 a month. Even if regulators are lenient, third parties can second-guess decisions with costly litigation.

On the eve of the state’s announcement, a canny suggestion has come from a coalition of groups including local governments, port districts, the Association of Washington Business and the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. The Inslee administration could adopt the Oregon estimate, but use it in a different way. It could ratchet down its expectation of cancer risk, from one in 1 million to one in 100,000, which is permissible under EPA guidelines.

The result would be decidedly more stringent water-quality standards within reach of industry and local governments. Idaho
proposed essentially the same thing and the regional office ordered it to reconsider. No matter. Washington shouldn’t allow itself to be bullied into a headlong rush down the Oregon Trail.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).