A study examining the potential health risks of Spokane’s trash incinerator is two years overdue, and state officials say they may take back the $300,000 that paid for the review if it isn’t finished soon.
Washington Department of Ecology officials say the work done so far isn’t scientifically acceptable and has taken too long.
Former Ecology director Christine Gregoire insisted on the health study when she agreed in 1988 to release $60 million in state money to build the city-owned garbage plant.
The city’s study was requested to address concerns about incinerator emissions, which include mercury, dioxin, lead and other hazardous substances.
Phil Williams, city of Spokane engineering director, says the dispute is merely a “philosophical difference” about the study’s format. He blames Ecology for some of the delays.
“Ecology wanted to see a more conventional human health-risk assessment. We never said we were doing that. We didn’t want to drone on about the toxic effects of mercury and so on,” Williams said.
The argument is more serious than that, said Harriet Ammann, senior toxicologist for the Washington Department of Health and the study’s chief reviewer.
“This dispute is about what’s considered an acceptable health-risk assessment,” Ammann said.
Spokane officials fought a long-term human health study, fearing it would make people less accepting of the incinerator, said Dan Swenson, Ecology’s section manager for solid waste in Olympia.
“They didn’t want the community to think they were going to take blood and hair samples,” Swenson said.
Because the study remains unfinished, Ammann said she can’t comment on whether it’s been done correctly.
Emissions data show the trash burner is far less hazardous than computer models predicted before it went on line in 1991, Williams said.
“We think the risks are dramatically lower than we anticipated,” Williams said.
Ecology will try to work out a compromise with Spokane’s solid waste project office to finish the work, said Swenson. Williams also thinks an agreement can be reached.
But completing the work to the state’s satisfaction may cost another $30,000 to $65,000, according to a March 21 letter to Swenson from Damon Taam, acting director of Spokane’s solid waste system.
The company under contract with Spokane for the work, Environmental Toxicology International Inc. of Seattle, has gone out of business. The principal scientist who worked on it, Dr. Kathryn Kelly, moved to Nevada.
Meanwhile, the anti-incinerator group, Citizens for Clean Air, is holding a public meeting tonight at 7 to critique the work done on the risk study.
“It’s been sanitized. The scope has been reduced considerably, and even with that they haven’t been able to satisfy the state’s questions,” said Bonnie Mager, a board member of Citizens for Clean Air.
It would be a mistake to give Spokane’s solid waste department more money to finish flawed work, Mager said. “Why throw good money after bad?” she said.
Mager also is a member of the city’s Solid Waste Advisory Committee. She said the advisory group was never told Ecology had major concerns about the study.
In 1992, Citizens for Clean Air obtained a $39,900 public participation grant from Ecology to critique the study.
The group completed its review, “Your Health and the Garbage Incinerator,” last fall, based on Environmental Toxicology’s interim reports to Ecology. But faced with several more months of delay on the assessment, the group decided to release its own study.
The group says the incinerator study is flawed because it doesn’t include all pollutants from the burner, and gives no rationale for why some are omitted.
The computer model used for the study also assumed all pollutants are blown out of Spokane if they aren’t directly absorbed by people, the group says. That ignores another possible contamination route: by cars or dust storms kicking up the pollutants, the group says.
The critique was written by Todd Martin, research director for the Hanford Education Action League of Spokane.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: MEETING TONIGHT The Citizens for Clean Air meeting is tonight at 7 at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 4340 W. Fort George Wright Drive.