November 08, 2012

(Puget) Sound Science

The current debate surrounding Washington State’s sediment cleanup and water quality standards provides another example of regulated industry calling for “sound science” in environmental regulation, yet working to undermine it.  Industry has worked to delay updates to water quality standards based on the most recent scientific studies, despite the fact that the current standards are based on decades-old data  and don’t adequately protect human health.  Most recently, industry has sought to weaken any forthcoming standards by misrepresenting scientific studies of contamination in Puget Sound and other marine waters and its impact on salmon. 

When agencies set standards limiting toxic pollution in our waters, they aim to protect humans exposed to these toxics by eating fish.  Fish consumption is the primary route by which people are exposed to a host of toxic contaminants, including PCBs, dioxins, and mercury.  Washington’s current water quality standards enlist a “fish consumption rate” (FCR) based on surveys of people’s fish consumption practices back in 1973-74. Although more recent survey data have existed for some time, the state’s Department of Ecology has declined to update its standards, even though its FCR of 6.5 grams/day – just one fish meal per month – grossly understates contemporary consumption rates for Washingtonians, including members of the fishing tribes, the Asian and Pacific Islander community, and others.  An increase in the FCR would mean more protective environmental standards.  Industry, for its part, has weighed in with calls to retain the current FCR – hardly an embrace of the state of the science.

In recent public comments, industry has taken the tack of gutting the FCR.  They have argued that people’s intake of salmon ought to be excluded from the FCR, on the theory that salmon, which are anadromous (i.e., they spend a portion of their lifecycles in freshwater and saltwater environments), obtain their contaminant body burden outside of waters of regulatory concern.  If salmon are getting their contaminants elsewhere, this argument goes, Washington ought not seek pollution prevention or cleanup from industries within its jurisdiction.  Because salmon comprise a considerable portion of Washingtonians’ fish intake, to exclude salmon from the FCR would be to decrease significantly the protectiveness of the environmental standards.

Assuming for the sake of argument that Washington ought be concerned only with contaminants currently within “the waters of Washington” over which it asserts regulatory jurisdiction (a point that might be challenged, given that pollutants released by sources within Washington may become dispersed, resuspended, or transported), how does industry support its claim? 

The National Council for Air and Stream Improvement, Inc. (NCASI) describes itself as “an independent, non-profit membership organization that provides technical support to the forest products industry on environmental issues.  An important part of our mission is to ensure that regulatory decision making is based on sound science.”   NCASI’s statements on the record are echoed by individual industry commenters.  NCASI states that “the science clearly shows that >95% of the contaminant body burden found in adult salmon is accumulated in the open ocean.”  The studies upon which NCASI relies, however, make no such finding.  Rather, they find that contaminant body burdens on this order are accumulated by salmon “in marine waters” – including the waters of the Puget Sound.  To appreciate the difference in these two formulations, one needs a bit of scientific background.

First, some biology.  The life history of Pacific salmon varies among and within species but, in general, adult salmon lay their eggs in freshwater streams and lakes, where their offspring hatch and rear before migrating out to the ocean to forage until they reach maturity.  At maturity, adults return to their natal stream or lake to spawn and die, completing the cycle.  Young salmon may spend anywhere from a few days to two or more years in fresh water before moving to estuarine environments and then entering salt water, i.e., marine environments.  Similarly, adult salmon may spend anywhere from one to seven years in saltwater environments, with variation among and between species.  Chinook salmon originating in the rivers of the Puget Sound watershed, for example, typically migrate out to the Pacific and forage along the coastal continental shelf; however, a substantial portion of these salmon display “resident” behavior, remaining in the Puget Sound during the marine phase of their lives.  The transition between freshwater and saltwater environments, whether during outward or homeward migration, is marked by extraordinary morphological and other changes in all species of salmon.   

Next, some geography.  The Puget Sound comprises a vast inland marine environment, with numerous interconnected channels, inlets and bays.  It is connected to the Pacific Ocean by the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  The Puget Sound watershed is over 13,700 square miles, draining rivers on the west side of the Cascade Mountains and on the east and north sides of Olympic Mountains.  If one were to swim from Budd Inlet in the south, near the city of Olympia, north through Admiralty Inlet and ultimately west, out through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, one would traverse roughly 200 miles before reaching the Pacific Ocean.   

Now for the studies.  The principle studies cited by NCASI are by Sandra O’Neill and Jim West (2009), and by Donna Cullon, et al. (2009).  Both studies recognized that anthropogenic influences had contributed to contamination of the Puget Sound watershed and set out to determine the source of contaminants in Pacific salmon, as between their freshwater and saltwater environments.  The O’Neill & West study looked at PCBs in Chinook salmon; the Cullon, et al., study looked at a host of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), including PCBs, dioxins and furans, and DDT.  Both studies sampled out-migrating juveniles and returning adult salmon at several locations.  The O’Neill & West study sampled five “in-river” (i.e., freshwater or estuarine) locations ranging from the Deschutes River in the south to the Nooksack River in the north, as well as two marine locations in the south and central Puget Sound.  The Cullon, et al., study sampled two in-river locations, the Deschutes and the Duwamish. 

O’Neill & West found, first, that the average PCB concentration in returning adult Puget Sound Chinook was 3 to 5 times greater than average concentrations reported in adult Chinook at six other West Coast locations outside Puget Sound.  O’Neill & West concluded that “the elevated PCB levels observed for Puget Sound Chinook salmon relative to coastal populations were probably associated with differences in PCB contamination in the environments they inhabit or with differences in diet.”  O’Neill & West also found that, although salmon uptake some PCBs from freshwater environments, the elevated concentrations of PCBs found in adult Chinook “were accumulated during residence in marine habitats rather than riverine habitats in the region.”  They reported that “adult Chinook salmon that had migrated as subyearlings from the Duwamish River, the most highly PCB-contaminated river draining into Puget Sound, accumulated the vast majority (>96%) of PCBs during their marine life history phase, whereas there was little PCB contribution from freshwater.”

Although Cullon, et al., sampled a small number of fish at fewer locations, their conclusions were similar: 

By comparing body burdens of POPs in returning adult chinook to out-migrating smolts and juveniles, we estimate that 97 to 99% of the body burden of PCBs, PCDDs, PCDFs, DDT, and HCH in all stocks originated during their time at sea … Our estimation that the majority of POPs in chinook salmon can be ascribed to their growth stage in coastal and marine waters is consistent with other studies.  A study of chinook from Washington ascribed 99% of PCBs in returning Duwamish River adults to the waters of Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean (citing a 1998 study by O’Neill, West, and Hoeman). 

We can now see the mischief in NCASI’s characterization of these studies’ findings.  NCASI’s statement that “the science clearly shows that >95% of the contaminant body burden found in adult salmon is accumulated in the open ocean” (emphasis added) treats the marine waters of the inland Puget Sound and Strait of Juan de Fuca as if they were the open Pacific Ocean.  NCASI’s characterization implies that the contaminants found in salmon don’t come from sources and waters for which the state of Washington has regulatory responsibility, because “the open ocean” is beyond its jurisdiction.  Admittedly, the Cullon, et al., study does not aid understanding by using the phrase “at sea” to describe the marine waters, both inland and coastal, in which salmon spend the saltwater phase of their lifecycles.  However, both the subsequent text and, more notably, the study design itself, clarify the authors’ usage.  Similarly, both O’Neill & West’s discussion and their study design make clear that their findings distinguish between contaminants taken up during the salmon’s freshwater phase, on the one hand, and their saltwater phase, on the other.  With in-river sampling locations, returning adults will have spent considerable time in the marine waters of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, both on their outward and homeward migrations.  These marine environments have been contaminated by industrial and residential development in the cities of Olympia, Tacoma, Seattle, Everett, Bellingham, Port Gamble, Port Townsend, and Port Angeles.  They have been impacted by agriculture and silviculture throughout the basin.  They receive “point” and “non-point” sources of water pollution, and harbor sediments laced with toxic contaminants. 

NCASI and other industry commenters have urged that salmon be excluded from the tally of people’s fish intake for purposes of environmental standard-setting, on the theory that these industries are not responsible for the contaminants that are showing up in the salmon (and have led the Washington State Department of Health to issue fish consumption advisories for Chinook).  Although they purport to invoke “the science” in support of this stance, the studies don’t say what NCASI says they say. 

Washington’s effort to revise its sediment cleanup and water quality standards based on a more scientifically defensible, updated fish consumption rate is long overdue and welcome.  Yet this effort stands to be undermined by a mischaracterization of the studies of Puget Sound salmon.  This ought to be guarded against, by the Department of Ecology and by all participants in the regulatory process.  Instead, we need to attend to our legal obligations and policy commitments in view of our best understanding of the local ecosystem and humans’ part in it – we need to ensure that this regulatory decision is based on Puget Sound science.

Catherine O'Neill, CPR Member Scholar; Professor of Law, Seattle University School of Law. Bio.

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