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State Trashes Spokane Incinerator Study Taxpayers May Pay For Health Report That Olympia Feels Is Missing The Mark

Spokane officials successfully warded off repeated state requests for a more comprehensive study of potential human health impacts from the city’s garbage incinerator, records show.

The bitter, eight-year battle over the study isn’t over yet - and Spokane taxpayers may end up paying part of the tab.

A trail of memos, letters and other documents between state agencies and City Hall sheds light on a mutual distrust that continues to plague the still-unfinished study.

Among the conflicts:

Experts from the state Ecology and Health departments wanted the study to include real people, including a look at whether toxic chemicals from the plant had ended up in the breast milk of nursing mothers.

The city resisted the pressure - and prevailed.

State officials urged Spokane to request additional money from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the study because the incinerator was a new technology for garbage disposal in the Northwest.

The city ignored that recommendation.

Ecology recently told Spokane officials that the study, released last December, isn’t scientifically acceptable and issued an ultimatum - finish it by the end of the year or risk losing $300,000 in state funding for the project. Most of that money has already been spent by the city on consultants and a draft.

Spokane officials say it will take $80,000 more to finish the study to the state’s satisfaction. Ecology is only willing to pay half that - leaving local taxpayers with the remaining $40,000 bill.

“The Spokane garbage rate payers will pay if they don’t,” said Damon Taam, who inherited the controversy when he became Spokane solid waste director last July.

Taxpayers shouldn’t pay another dime, said Bonnie Mager of the Washington Environmental Council, the state’s largest environmental coalition.

“This study has been mishandled since the beginning,” she said. “Spokane should not be rewarded for incompetence.”

The battle over the study started in 1988, when then-Ecology Director Christine Gregoire ordered reluctant Spokane officials to do a human health study on the trash plant planned for the West Plains.

Faced with growing public concern about the hazards of incinerator emissions, Gregoire said the state would pay for the $300,000 study.

Without it, Gregoire wouldn’t have released $60 million in state money for the incinerator, garbage transfer stations and landfill closures. Those projects cost a combined $134 million.

In 1989, Phil Williams, now the city’s engineering director, became solid waste director and formed a local advisory committee for the study.

Health Department officials, charged with overseeing the research, soon complained that Williams was excluding them from important decisions about the scope of the study.

“Communication with DOH has been negligible to date,” said agency air specialist Kim Field in July 1990.

The study’s goals are “vague … and nobody seems to be following overtures to EPA for more money and assistance,” Field said in a letter to Williams.

Health officials from Olympia objected that Williams gave them such short notice of key committee meetings that they couldn’t attend. That resulted in an agreement requiring Williams to give them two weeks’ notice.

On Aug. 13, 1990, the City Council approved a contract with Environmental Toxicology Inc. of Seattle to conduct the study.

Dr. Harriet Ammann, the Health Department’s senior toxicologist in Olympia, complained that she wasn’t provided information detailing the study’s scope beforehand.

A few months later, Ammann’s boss, James White, wrote a letter to Ecology, saying Williams had snubbed the Health Department and shut the door on federal assistance.

“Any further consideration by EPA would seem to be a moot point by now,” White wrote.

Williams apologized to White, saying a fax he’d intended to send Ammann on the Environmental Toxicology Inc. work plan had “gotten lost.”

Taam now concedes the city has had “communication problems” with the Health Department. But he insisted, “We have no vendetta against Harriet.”

Seven years ago, however, Ammann and Field wrote a memo to Ecology expressing their concern that the Spokane study won’t “meet the concerns of the community.”

But Ecology, which held the purse strings, didn’t step in to insist on the kind of study Gregoire originally called for, said Curt Messex, a member of the Spokane advisory committee.

“If Ecology is unhappy now, Ecology needs to be kicked in the butt,” Messex said.

Several Ecology officials complained internally that the agency wasn’t getting the study Gregoire had asked for, but they were overruled, said one Ecology staffer who requested anonymity.

“I can only say as a taxpayer, I’m very incensed by this,” the Olympia staff member said.

The reason for Ecology’s waffling: Spokane elected officials, including former Spokane County Commissioner Pat Mummey, lobbied hard against a human health study, said Dan Swenson, Ecology’s solid waste manager in Olympia.

“They didn’t want the community to think they were going to take blood and hair samples,” Swenson said.

But the animosity between the Health Department and the Spokane officials continued.

On Feb. 15, 1991, Field and Ammann shared their “disgust with Phil Williams” for misleading them about the agenda of a Feb. 13 advisory committee meeting in Spokane, according to an agency memo.

Williams had told Ammann there’d be no technical discussion at the project meeting, so she decided not to come. At the last minute, Williams scheduled a technical discussion, Ammann said.

Also in early 1991, Williams and Mummey strongly criticized Ecology for giving the anti-incinerator group Citizens for Clean Air a $39,900 public participation grant to critique the incinerator study.

On Jan. 7, 1991, Williams called Ecology and said he was “stunned and shocked” by the grant award, according to an agency phone log.

The citizen group’s “sole purpose in life is to cause trouble for the project and shut it down,” Williams said.

In June 1994, Williams sent the final draft of the study to Ammann for her review. She said it wasn’t comprehensive enough.

The study is “selective” in what it measures and has no information on how PCBs, dioxins and furans from the plant are affecting Spokane residents, she said in her review.

The study also ignores ash emissions and small combustion particles, which EPA studies show are an increasing health concern, Ammann said.

She also criticized the study’s limited use of stack emissions from only one test in the first year, when two more years of data were available. The annual stack test may not be representative of daily emissions, she said.

Ammann also said it was hard to tell what assumptions went into the risk assessment.

“This process should be so clearly spelled out that an individual reading this document could walk through the process,” she said.

In fall 1994, Williams told Ecology the final report would be ready by the end of 1995. But that year problems with the study escalated.

In May 1995, principal scientist Dr. Kathryn Kelly resigned from Environmental Toxicology. She later apologized to Williams for how “complicated” the project had become.

Williams urged Spokane elected officials to stick with Kelly to finish the work. In March 1996, the City Council authorized an additional $48,000 for her to continue.

Last December, Williams finally presented the study to the advisory committee. He also responded to a critique by Citizens for Clean Air.

The group said the study doesn’t include all of the incinerator’s potential hazards. Williams said he never intended the study to be a comprehensive health assessment.

It was “intended to be a verification” of computer models done before the plant was built that predicted it would have few health impacts, Williams said.

He called this approach “quite unique,” and noted it’s not a “conventional risk assessment.”

That’s the problem, health officials said. In January, Ammann outlined what she expects for the study to be acceptable. Meanwhile, Ecology officials grew increasingly frustrated.

“We have no reason to believe that a credible environmental health impact study of the Spokane Regional Solid Waste Facility and operations will be published within the foreseeable future,” Ecology’s Dolores Mitchell said earlier this year.

Without a “defensible project,” Ecology said it wouldn’t reimburse Spokane the $300,000 for the study.

On March 21, solid waste director Taam told Ecology he doesn’t have to do a formal risk assessment and suggested an “outside panel” resolve the dispute.

In June, Williams briefed the City Council on the study. He didn’t mention Ecology’s threat to yank its funding, or the agency’s unhappiness over the study’s science.

The Spokane trash incinerator is “the most thoroughly investigated waste-to-energy facility in the United States,” Williams said in a memo to the council.

In July, Taam told Ecology he’d amend the project to include “current EPA methods” for a formal risk assessment.

But the work’s really not necessary, Taam said Friday.

“People should feel very good about the plant. It’s an asset we have, and it’s doing better than we ever thought.”

, DataTimes MEMO: See related story under the headline: State refuses to pay for experts’ incinerator report

See related story under the headline: State refuses to pay for experts’ incinerator report

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