Regulatory Injustice:

Native American Fish Consumption in the

Columbia River Basin


Victoria DeCillo


The Columbia River Basin is home to over 15,000 Native Americans who hold treaty based fishing rights to fish from the Columbia River. Over the past few years, concern has been rained over the possible health risks from eating contaminated fish caught in the Columbia River. Water quality studies have shown elevated levels of heavy metals, radionuclides, semi-volatile organics, pesticides and dioxin. Dioxin is of particular concern because of the recent reassessment by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which found dioxin to be more toxic than previously thought, and to impact human health at current background levels in the environment. To address the concerns of Native Americans, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission carried out a fish consumption study with its four member tribes: the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama Nation. The survey found adult tribal members consume approximately nine times the national average (58.7 gpd).


Human health based water quality standards developed by the EPA use a default assumption of 6.5 gpd in the risk assessment process. Clearly, 6.5 gpd is not representative of tribal consumption, nor does it represent consumption levels of other subpopulations who fish for subsistence and ceremonial purposes. These uses of the nation's waters are guaranteed by the Clean Water Act, and treaties signed by the Federal government with the tribes of the Pacific Northwest. By not setting water quality standards which are protective of tribal consumption, the EPA violates both federal statutes and treaties.


The EPA contends that it is the responsibility of the states to choose a more representative consumption level. The choice of which fish consumption rate to use in setting water quality criteria is a political decision, difficult for states to make without the backing of EPA. For this reason, most states defer to the guidance which is set by EPA. Currently the national criteria for dioxin assumes a consumption rate of 6.5 gpd.


The EPA has acknowledged 6.5 gpd is not protective of the public health. But the real question is, which populations are water quality standards designed to protect? Should standards protect for the most sensitive population, the highly exposed population, or as is currently, the "average individual in the total population"? These difficult policy decisions must be made before data from fish consumption surveys can be used effectively.


Another important point the investigation of water quality standards highlights is the ability of states to meet those standards with current end-of-pipe pollution control technology. Several of the streams and lakes which flow throughout the Columbia River Basin have levels of dioxin which exceed water quality standards (0.013 ppq). Dioxin is a potent toxic, and it bioaccumulates in fish. At levels of nondetect in pulp and paper mill effluent it causes significant damage to the ecosystem, and possible to human health. For this reason, pollution prevention strategies, such as "zero chlorine discharge," must be realized.y