Toxic-Free Fish Campaign: Oregon

In 2011, Oregon adopted the nation’s most protective toxic pollution water quality standards. Under the Clean Water Act, states must set toxic limits based in part on how much fish people eat. If the state assumes people rarely eat fish, the state can allow more toxic pollution discharges. Thousands of pipes discharge toxic pollution to the Columbia River and its tributaries. And these toxics accumulated in fish that people, including Native Americans, immigrants, and sport fishermen, eat.

Before 2011, Oregon’s toxic pollution standards protected only people who ate the equivalent of a cracker-sized amount of fish per day. This was nothing short of an injustice. With the leadership of Columbia River tribes and hard work from conservation groups including Columbia Riverkeeper, Oregon was the first state to adopt criteria based a fish consumption rate that protects the majority of fish consumers.

The Road to Victory

Oregon’s decision began with tribal leadership, particularly from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR). Here is a brief overview of the events leading up to Oregon’s landmark 2011 decision.

  • From 1991 to 1992, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), a partnership of the Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Nez Perce Tribes, conducted an in-depth study which showed that tribal members eat significantly more than 6.5 grams per day of fish. The study included a survey of resident and anadromous fish consumption. CTUIR used the study and others to advocate that Oregon adopt a fish consumption rate and human health criteria that protected tribal members.
  • Following the CRITFC study, it took Oregon nearly two decades to adopt more protective human health criteria. In 2004, Oregon adopted human health criteria using a fish consumption rate of 17.5 grams per day. In 2006 DEQ began the process of revising the fish consumption rate and human health criteria in response to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s concern that the 2004 rules failed to protect public health.
  • Between 2006 and 2010, DEQ convened a scientific and policy workgroups to address development of the fish consumption rate, implementation of new standards in NPDES permits, and the role nonpoint sources in contributing to toxic pollution in Oregon. Columbia Riverkeeper and Northwest Environmental Advocates (NWEA) represented conservation interests on the point and non-point source workgroups.
  • Following a lawsuit by NWEA, EPA disapproved Oregon’s 2004 standards in 2010. This paved the way for Oregon to act promptly in 2011 and adopt new standards.

Holding Back Toxic Pollution Loopholes

For decades, pollution dischargers in Oregon grew accustomed to the lax limits on toxic pollution. In turn, some industries and cities will have to work harder to reduce the amount of toxic pollution they release into the Columbia River and other waterbodies. In Oregon, public involvement was critical to ensuring that that state followed through on its promise to protect the vast majority of people who eat fish, and ensure that off-ramps from compliance didn’t swallow the new toxic limits.

For more information on Oregon’s historic decision, visit the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s website and the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission’s website.