As part of setting new limits on water pollution based in part on how much fish people eat, state government is convening meetings of interested parties. But the state’s Indian tribes are refusing to participate.
Discouraged by lack of progress, and asserting their rights as sovereign nations, tribes are trying to bypass the state’s process.
“We want action, not further discussion,” Andy Whitener of the Squaxin Island Tribe wrote to Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant in a letter turning down an invitation to join a group providing advice.
Nisqually tribal member Billy Frank, the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission who supported Democrat Jay Inslee in his successful campaign for governor, wrote a blog post Monday calling on Inslee to “reset” the process after taking office next month.
Tribes say current state water-quality rules that call for making sure people are safe eating 6.5 grams of fish a day are woefully inadequate. The people who run industrial plants and municipal water-treatment facilities don’t disagree – but they do worry the rules that result might be so onerous they will have to spend huge amounts of money on upgrades that still don’t meet the standards.
Some skeptics also say the state hasn’t collected enough information to be able to trace fish routes from Washington waters to residents’ stomachs.
“It’s very clear that there seems to be a greater need for data,” said Rep. Shelly Short, R-Addy, who says factors that need to be considered include fish that originate or spend much of their lives outside Washington waters.
Tribes say their studies clearly show many Native Americans’ diets depend heavily on local fish and call for a fish consumption rate that at least matches Oregon’s, the highest in the nation at 175 grams a day.
The issue became contentious as the Department of Ecology sought to set a higher fish-consumption rate as part of a process of writing rules for contaminated sediment. After months of work, Sturdevant opted last summer to leave a rate out of those rules, letting them vary from site to site based on local data.
He shifted the question of how much fish Washingtonians should be able to safely eat to a new, accelerated process for setting rules for water quality, expected to be completed in early 2014.
“All it took was for business and industry lobbyists to voice some concerns to stop development of the new rate dead in its tracks,” Frank wrote on his blog.
Ecology says the critical water-quality process is far from stopped and instead has been speeded up. The agency is also moving to design options for dischargers of pollution to comply with the rules, addressing concerns that it will be impossible or too costly. It is holding meetings with interested parties, with key players sitting at what the department calls a “delegate’s table.”
But when the table convened Oct. 29, it included none of the tribal delegates who had been invited. Most were from businesses and local governments.
Fran Wilshusen, habitat services manager for the fisheries commission, called it a boycott of the process. Some tribal leaders, including Jim Peters of the Squaxin, portrayed it more as tribes determined to be treated as fellow governments.
“We respect their decision not to participate,” said Tom Laurie, executive adviser to Sturdevant. “We’re hoping they will involve their staff, though. … We respect the government-to-government relationship, and we will consult with tribes in an appropriate manner as we go through this.”
Tribes are trying an alternate route. They met with Ecology and the federal Environmental Protection Agency and hope to turn that trio into a separate oversight group.
“The way the tribes are feeling is, they just invested years of effort for nothing. So what’s going to change to start again now? Nothing. So they’re trying to reset it,” said Wilshusen, who said tribes are still looking for ways to work with industry, but separately. “Why would we sit back around again and talk about it with the same people? It’s unlikely there’s going to be any change in point of view.”Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 blog.thenewstribune.com/politics email@example.com @Jordan_Schrader