Don’t Eat the Fish: The Astounding Failure of Our Regulatory Agencies

Steelhead trout. PhotoL Ryan Hagerty/USFWS.

What happens when state and federal agencies refuse to adequately regulate industries and activities that produce pollution and release it into the environment?  Well, as reported by the Daily Montanan, a recent study by the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has found the Clark Fork, Bitterroot and Blackfoot Rivers to be much more polluted with highly toxic substances than previously thought — and they can’t even pinpoint where the poisons originated.

One thing is certain, however, and it’s that those substances, which include PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), deadly dioxins, and furans are very bad for humans and fish.  How bad? A fish consumption advisory in 2020 recommends that people avoid eating any fish from the Clark Fork from its confluence with the Bitterroot all the way to its confluence with the Flathead River — 148 miles of Montana’s largest river with all the fish of every species too toxic to eat.

The pollutants the agency found are most commonly associated with industrial activities whose pollution is supposedly “regulated” by the Department of Environmental Quality — which  given the increasing number of serious pollution issues in the state should probably be renamed since the one thing it’s not ensuring is “environmental quality.”

Instead, the study was conducted by the state’s fish and wildlife agency — which is not legally charged with regulating pollution from industrial sources or issuing discharge permits to allow that pollution. One might think the agency permitting the pollution might be the one to follow up on the results, particularly when the data shows levels of toxic substances hazardous to human health and the aquatic ecosystems of our world famous rivers.

But no, what actually happens — and history is replete with these examples — is that so-called “regulatory” agencies fail to ensure the pollutant discharges they permit are actually safe.  The failure to do so contradicts and ignores the Montana constitution’s “Inalienable Right to a clean and healthful environment” as well as the mandate that: “The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.” 

 When the rivers are so polluted with poisons that you can’t eat the fish, it’s undeniable that those agencies have failed to uphold our constitutional rights.  Furthermore, the “don’t eat any fish” advisories aren’t even printed in the state’s fishing regulations.  If you want to find out how toxic the fish in our rivers and lakes are you have to go to a Fish, Wildlife and Parks “consumption advisory” website — but be forewarned, you’re likely to be shocked.

It’s also worth remembering that whatever pollution limits Montana’s regulatory agencies allow have to be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency — which seems like it might be in for a name change, too, given the increasingly evident results that the environment is not being protected.

The unfortunate truth is that state and federal agencies are very reluctant to impose pollution limits on operating industrial facilities because commerce takes precedent over safety for the citizens, our lands, and waters. Instead, they spend millions trying to clean up the damage after the facilities shut down.

The current pushback by Montana’s politicians against new pollution limits for Colstrip’s dirty coal plants being just the latest case exposing the myth of state and/or federal government actually protecting its citizens or our environment.

And then there’s the Department of Environmental Quality approving yet another proposal to spray wastewater from the Big Sky pollution complex on the slopes. This despite the fact that the once-pristine Gallatin River now runs neon green with algae every summer, has been classified as “impaired,” and is in the early stages of a six-year study to try and figure out where the pollution is coming from — when there’s no place else for the nutrients, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers and pesticides to go except downslope to the Gallatin.

The result is equally disgusting. Taxpayers now get dinged for millions of dollars in studies to try and figure out just how bad the damage is. Why? Because the “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” adage has been ignored by our politicians and agencies — and now our children, rivers, fish and future all pay the ultimate price as the result of their dereliction of duty to regulate the industrial pollution that is poisoning us.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.