Assess risk and put it in perspective | Don Brunell

Where there is life, there is risk. That’s not some insightful quotation, it’s just a fact.

Where there is life, there is risk. That’s not some insightful quotation, it’s just a fact.

We’re exposed to risk from the moment we get up in the morning – slip and fall, dog bite, traffic accident, lightning strike. We can manage risk, we can minimize risk, but we cannot eliminate it.

That fact used to be accepted as common sense, but in today’s society, people have come to believe that any degree of risk is unacceptable. In fact, trial lawyers have won lawsuits, not because their clients were injured, but because they feared they might be.

Why does this matter to you? When government tries to ensure a virtually risk-free environment, it imposes regulations that are needlessly punitive and costly. We pay those costs through higher prices and lost jobs.

Case in point: estimating environmental risk. There are two common ways to calculate risk. One method is easier and cheaper; the other is more accurate. Most government agencies use the first one.

It’s called the “deterministic” method.

This method is easier for agencies to use because it’s simple and it doesn’t require a lot of data. The only problem is it’s less accurate. It tends to overestimate risk. But that’s not all. Regulators routinely take that overestimated risk level and compound it by adding an additional layer of buffer – “just to be safe.” As a result, you end up with regulations that are far more restrictive and costly than necessary to provide protection.

Last November, the Washington Department of Ecology announced that it will likely use this method as it updates the state’s Fish Consumption Level – one factor in a complex formula that determines our state’s water quality standards.

That’s a problem. Ecology’s starting point on this issue was extreme to begin with. They wanted to use the same FCR that Oregon used, one which resulted in water quality standards that are virtually impossible to meet because the technology to comply doesn’t exist, and may not for decades. In some cases, the allowable levels are so low they can’t be measured with existing technology.

A recent study by HDR Engineering estimates that imposing these standards in Washington would cost local governments, ports, ratepayers and businesses billions, with little or no environmental benefit.

Despite that, Ecology still plans to use this less accurate method to calculate environmental risks.

There is a better way.

It’s called the probabilistic method, as in “probabilities.” It’s more comprehensive, more precise and more accurate.

This method analyzes large amounts of data and thousands of variables in order to calculate a range of exposures and risks across various populations and circumstances. The result is a more nuanced, realistic picture of environmental risk.

Think of it this way: When you walk out of your house, there’s a risk you could get struck by lightning. Lightning strikes occur every day somewhere on the globe. But how likely is it that it will happen to you? That’s the question that is better answered by the probabilistic method.

Ecology has used the probabilistic method, and the EPA says it provides the best basis for decision-making. “Because the results of the refined risk assessment show the range of possible environmental impacts and which ones are most likely to occur, they provide a better basis for decision-making.”

If that’s true, why isn’t Ecology using it now? Good question.

It’s a question being asked by the members of the Northwest Pulp & Paper Association, who recently submitted a report to Ecology on the probabilistic method prepared by ARCADIS, a global leader in environmental engineering and risk assessment. NWPPA has asked Ecology to use the more accurate probabilistic method as the agency updates our state’s water quality standards.

Let’s hope they listen.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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