A pile of salmon awaits filleting on May 7, 2022, in Juneau. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

A pile of salmon awaits filleting on May 7, 2022, in Juneau. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

EPA threatens to step in if Alaska does not update its water pollution limit

Does average Alaskan eat more than a cracker’s worth of fish a day? Answer may have big implications.

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

On Thursday, 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 state residents.

Under federal law, those limits are supposed to be reviewed every three years, but Alaska hasn’t 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 EPA last fall that a draft would be ready for inspection by the end of the year, none 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 setting 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 — 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 on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the EPA, Alaska Native tribes and local 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.

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.

“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.

“We commend the EPA’s action. It’s in the interest of all Alaskans to have clean, safe, healthy water free from contamination, and there’s no reason for the State of Alaska to be using fish consumption numbers we all know are wildly inaccurate — especially when that estimate guides the amount of contamination allowable in our fish-bearing rivers,” said Mary Catharine Martin, communications director for SalmonState, an environmental organization.

Gene McCabe, director of the division of water for the DEC, 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.

“We’re still deliberating on that,” he said. “The best I could say is that the fish consumption rate is based on data obtained from fish consumption within the state of Alaska.”

That would be a change from current practice, but it isn’t yet clear how the new figure — if there is one — will be received by Alaskans or the EPA.

In Florida, for example, EPA officials sent a similar warning in 2022 to state officials there. Florida never finalized new rules, and late last year, the EPA proposed a new federal rule for them. It would apply to more than 70 limits for individual chemicals. That rule remains under discussion and deliberation.

• James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. This article originally appeared online at alaskabeacon.com. Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.

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