EPA pushes state to update fish consumption data and water quality rules

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is prodding the state of Alaska over its failure to update water pollution rules.

On Thursday, June 6, the EPA issued a formal determination that the state should update pollution limits that are based in part on the amount of fish consumed by individuals. Under federal law, those limits are supposed to be reviewed every three years, but Alaska has not updated its limits since 2003.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has been working since 2013 on an updated list of water quality standards, but despite telling the EPA last fall that a draft would be ready for inspection by the end of the year, nothing has been released.

“EPA has determined that new and revised water quality standards for Alaska are needed to protect the health of Alaska residents. EPA prefers that the state of Alaska address this determination by updating its water quality standards. If not, EPA is prepared to step in, and today we’ve taken the first step,” said Caleb Shaffer, acting director of the water division for EPA Region 10, which covers Alaska.

Fish consumption is a key factor in settling water-pollution limits for almost 100 different individual pollutants, including mercury and the insecticide DDT, under the simple principle that polluted water leads to polluted fish, and eating polluted fish can make someone sick.

Alaska currently bases its water pollution guidelines on the notion that residents eat an average of 6.5 grams of fish per day, less than a quarter-ounce — an amount that can fit on a cracker.

That figure was set in 1992 by the EPA as a general estimate for Americans nationwide. Alaska set its 2003 limits on that figure “and has not revised those … since,” the EPA said.

Meanwhile, the EPA, Alaska Native tribes and environmental groups have all said they believe the state should use a much higher estimate for how much fish Alaskans eat. That would result in tougher clean-water standards.

The Wrangell Cooperative Association and the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission this spring announced a year-long project to survey Wrangell residents to determine the quantity and types of seafood they consume.

The goal is to provide real data in the push for the state to update its outdated fish consumption rate. In March, Guy Archibald, SEITC executive director, said there have been efforts to get Alaska to change its fish consumption rate for 30 years.

In 2015, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Coalition asked for DEC to work from an estimate of 175 grams per day for Alaskans that rely on subsistence harvests, or a little over six ounces of fish per day.

“The state of Alaska is responsible for deciding how much pollution is safe in the water,” said Maggie Rabb, SEACC’s executive director. “And that is tied into how much seafood we eat. And when they purposely and knowingly underestimate how much seafood we eat, that means that their determination of what is a safe level of pollution isn’t using sound science or data. And that’s a problem for us.”

Even the state itself has said the fish-consumption levels are far too low.

In 2019, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game published a study finding that urban Alaskans consume an average of 8.9 grams per day, and in rural Alaska, the figure is much higher — an average of almost 195 grams per day in Western Alaska.

That finding means Alaskans could be exposed to significantly more water pollution than the residents of other states.

Compounding the issue is the state’s decision to set the acceptable rate of pollution-caused cancer at 1 in 100,000. Other states have taken a tougher limit of 1 per 1,000,000 or 1 in 10,000,000.

Gene McCabe, director of DEC’s Water Division, said the EPA’s determination didn’t tell his agency something new.

“I think it’s their way of saying, ‘we are formally stating that you do need to take action.’ We have known that for several years and been working on the project. It is a momentous undertaking, and the staff have really been working hard on this,” he said.

He said it’s reasonable to think that the state’s new limits will be ready in the next six to 12 months, but he declined to say whether the DEC’s limits will be based on a higher estimate of fish consumption.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization. Alaskabeacon.com. The Wrangell Sentinel contributed reporting for this story.


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