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Agency can”t keep up with aquifer threats

Protection of the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer would be increased under a proposal by the Panhandle Health District.

The plan calls for significant fee increases for new septic systems and for businesses that store hazardous materials, including gasoline and chemicals, over the region’s drinking water source.

The funding boost would add two employees and double the size of the Panhandle Health District’s critical materials program, said Dick Martindale, environmental health section manager for the agency. Adequate laws exist to protect the purity of the aquifer, but additional staff is needed to keep up with Kootenai County’s growth spurt, he said.

“We are now unable to keep up with the growth,” Martindale said. “We’re stretched fairly thin.”

The Panhandle Health District also has bigger plans for protecting the aquifer. The agency will ask the next session of the Idaho Legislature to establish an aquifer protection area where all Idaho users of the aquifer would pay an annual fee, Martindale said. Details on the protection area are still being worked out.

Nearly 400 businesses over the aquifer, including the BNSF Railway refueling depot, currently handle potentially harmful chemicals. Since 1990, the Panhandle Health District has been charged with reviewing and regulating how these businesses store and use the chemicals.

Currently, the agency is only able to inspect the businesses about once every five years. Additional staff would allow the inspections to increase in frequency to every two years.

“The number-one change in the program will be increased frequency of inspection,” Martindale said.

Under the proposal, the cost of a critical materials application review would rise by 50 percent to $75. The cost of inspection would rise from $75 to $200.

“The key to our aquifer protection program is prevention of contamination before it happens,” Martindale said. “If we can help businesses and industries design and construct the safest facility possible and then continue to review their ongoing operations to assure compliance, the better we can protect and prevent contamination.”

The proposal also calls for boosting the cost of septic tank permits and inspections from $414 to $580, which would make the program self-supporting, Martindale said.

The Panhandle Health District will hold a public hearing next month on the fee increase and the district’s board of directors will consider the increase at its regular meeting on May 4. If county commissioners approve the district’s proposed budget on June 1, the fee increases would take effect July 1, according to information from the agency.


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