We need to rethink our stewardship ethics in this country

As hundreds of athletes from around the world converged on Rio this past month, some possibly risking their health due to toxic, trash-infested waters in Guanabara Bay, water quality issues were in play right here at home as well..

As hundreds of athletes from around the world converged on Rio this past month, some possibly risking their health due to toxic trash-infested waters in Guanabara Bay, water quality issues were in play right here at home as well.

That’s why Northwest Tribes are supporting the ruling Federal District Court Judge Barbara Rothstein imposed on the Environmental Protection Agency on Aug. 3 to finalize new anti-pollution water quality rules aimed at protecting public health by Nov. 15. Tribes have been pushing for improved water quality standards in this state for generations. The poisons and anoxic conditions in the water have unquestionably contributed to the devastation of our fish and wildlife resources. They have violated our treaty-protected rights by forcing us to curtail or close fisheries and we want clean air, clean water and a healthy environment again.

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. 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.

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 they need clean, free flowing water to survive, is why our teacher, mentor, and beloved leader Billy Frank, Jr. always referred to salmon as the measuring stick of good health of our Northwest environment.

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 have been concerned could lead to more cancer cases, particularly among Native people, who generally consume an average of several hundred grams a day.

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. Given the fact that 175 grams barely came close to meeting half the average salmon consumption of most tribal members to begin with, his proposal was hardly acceptable to us. The governor had proposed to counter his 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?

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.

Judge Rothstein concurred, and on Aug. 3 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. 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 heightened 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.

It’s important for people to realize that although Native Americans are most susceptible to many of the toxins 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 toxins, 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 and remain vigilant and steadfast in honoring our ancestral teachings to protect all things living and the natural world.

As Judge Rothstein ordered, our food and water must be free of toxic chemicals that cause harm to our health. Our future, our children’s future, and the future of those generations yet to be born depend on the decisions we make today. We will not carelessly disregard those necessary and critically important steps that must be taken to protect and preserve the bright and prosperous future we envision not only for Quinault but our neighbors, surrounding communities, and the entire Northwest region.

Not on our watch.