A couple weeks ago, Steve Kolmes of the University of Portland came by Penn to speak about EPA methodology for setting ambient WQ standards. He presented his involvement and knowledge with the process of amending Oregon’s water quality standards, touching on the technical aspects of toxicology, political framework, and the ethics of water quality regulation in the United States. I will summarize my main takeaways from the presentation here.

Surface water quality standards are set by the EPA based on human exposure risk, which means that they utilized toxicological studies that tell us when concentrations of certain contaminants are high enough to that they begin to cause negative health effects in a certain proportion of humans. These kinds of studies are based on exposure pathways, which in the case of aqueous contaminants the most prominent of which is fish consumption.

So, right here we have a couple issues. Firstly, these exposures are determined based on an average, 150-lb male human. Secondly, they are based on an average consumption of fish. The acceptable carcinogenic response among these defined “average” humans is 1:1,000,000. However, since a large portion of our population does not exactly fit what has been defined as “average”, this necessarily means that the expected carcinogenic response will be higher in some populations (non-150 lb, white, males?) than in others. An obvious environmental justice issue.

Where Dr. Kolmes’ presentation of Oregon’s story began to get very interesting was how Oregon came to adopt the strictest surface water quality standards in the country. In 1855, as a concession to Indian tribes in Oregon for taking their lands, the Federal Government granted the tribes rights to all the fish in state waters through the Columbia River Treaty. This detail essentially gave Indian subsistence fishers who consume quantities of fish much higher than the previous EPA-established “average” a foothold to challenge Oregon’s basis for the federally-mandated minimum water quality standard. In the end, Oregon’s Environmental Quality Commission did adopt the stricter standard recommended by the state’s technical advisory committee. See here for more info.

But, Oregon is unique in that if it weren’t for the Columbia River Treaty and Indians’ right to the fish, perhaps this case would not have ended so well. Dr. Kolmes identified the problem of our current “forecasting” style of policy making. Forecasting results in a narrow range of options, and change is incremental. Instead, he suggested what he called a “post-normal science”, backcasting process, in which the desired outcome is determined first , based on the stake of the decision and the amount of uncertainty associated with that decision. Exactly when both the stakes of the decision and the uncertainty associated with the decision are high (irreducible), this is when resilience management, and post-normal science is critically necessary.

Another great point Dr. Kolmes made was the problem in utilizing Cost-Benefit Analysis instead of absolute interpretation of the law to determine implementation of policy. The problem with using Cost-Benefit Analysis is that it requires assignment of value to things that have a price  (external value) and to things that have a dignity  (internal value), which really cannot and should not be compared against each other.

Dr. Kolmes suggested the following books that go into more depth on the cost-benefit analysis:

  • Poisoned for Pennies
  • Priceless 

This was a great presentation that touched on much, much more than just the scientific and technical aspects of water quality standards methodology. I know I’d like to look into the idea of post-normal science more to see if there is more I can glean about uncertainty, risk management and resiliency, the buzz word of sustainable planning. Anyway, I highly recommend seeing Steven Kolmes speak if you have the chance! You won’t be bored!


 *note– I wrote this article based on the notes I took during the presentation and on my own memory. Please let me know if you find any inaccuracies!

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