BOARDMAN - The water quality standard Oregon adopted last year for the level of toxics allowed is grossly inadequate to protect tribal members and others who eat more fish than the national average.
That's what members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation stressed at the state Environmental Quality Commission meeting Thursday in Boardman.
The EQC adopted rules last May that revised water quality criteria for toxic pollutants. The tribes objected to that standard, which prompted the commission to schedule a "government-to-government dialogue" as part of the agenda for its two-day meeting in northeast Oregon.
Several tribal staff members and leaders - including Board of Trustees Chairman Antone Minthorn, Treasurer Les Minthorn and Board Member Bill Quaempts - met with the commission to seek an increase in the toxics standard.
Rick George, environmental planning program manager for the tribes, said studies by the CTUIR and other tribes in the Northwest show that the current standard does not adequately protect tribal people since they consume much more fish than mainstream society.
The Department of Environmental Quality bases its standard on a simple mathematical equation, he noted: the lower the fish consumption, the more toxic discharge is allowed, the higher the consumption, the less toxics allowed. The DEQ standard was figured by using the national average for fish consumption - 17.5 grams per day or a little more than half an ounce.
"That would be a chunk of salmon half the size of a saltine cracker," George said. "Tribal consumption is 20 times that amount."
That means tribal members, and many others in a high fish-consuming state like Oregon, are at risk under the existing toxics standard for water quality, George said, because they consume more toxics through fish than what is considered healthy. Toxics can potentially cause cancer or other health problems.
Antone Minthorn called Thursday's session with the EQC "a very good meeting. Our tribal staff really gave some excellent presentations ... the commissioners were very impressed. The response from commission Chairman Mark Reeve was very positive."
In an effort to take the politics out of the issue, in addition to its own studies the tribes put together a panel of scientists that included toxicologists from Oregon Health Sciences University, the Oregon and Washington health departments, Oregon State University and the Environmental Protection Agency. That group came to the same conclusions, George said.
Minthorn and George said the tribes expect to continue to work with the Environmental Quality Commission to resolve the problem of a toxics standard that's too low to protect the public in Oregon.
Minthorn stressed that Oregon should not "punt this decision to the federal government" by basing the water quality standard on a national fish-consumption rate that doesn't apply to Oregon. Oregon simply accepted that recordation, but "Oregon should make its decision for Oregonians."
He also emphasized to the commission that a higher toxics standard would be good for everyone, not just tribal members.
In addition to the discussion with the tribes, the commission also heard a report on the Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility while in Boardman. The commission has a northeast Oregon member, vice chair Lynn Hampton, a tribal prosecutor with the CTUIR.