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Pollution breaking point

Thu., May 3, 2007

The war against pollution became a house-to-house battle in April, with volunteers like Tom Brattebo pressing neighbors to do more.

He didn’t know what to expect. It’s a tough task standing on a stranger’s doorstep, arguing that your corner of the world is in danger even as trees bud and the spring grass turns green.

But looks can be deceiving. The Spokane River is ailing; pollutants from myriad sources are robbing the water of oxygen, making it difficult for fish and aquatic plants to survive. And algae are flourishing in dammed areas like Long Lake.

Ecologists have spent years trying to clean it up by drafting tight regulations on the factories and sewage treatment plants that dump directly into the river, even going as far as threatening to allow nothing to be discharged. Those efforts haven’t been enough. So now regulators are gearing up to tackle the region’s biggest polluter – us.

Neighbors fertilizing their lawns, suburban houses hooked to septic tanks, farm and logging operations located along streams, account for 43 percent of all pollution hitting the Spokane River. To date little has been done about these pollution sources because they’re hard to regulate.

It’s hard to stop a guy from putting fertilizer on his lawn, or using automatic dishwashing detergent that may damage the river, said Jani Gilbert, spokeswoman for the state Department of Ecology. It’s much easier to regulate a factory or sewer plant because everything that’s dumped comes from a single point along the river, like a pipe.

But the point polluters are crying uncle, which is just one reason why Brattebo and others went door to door last month in Liberty Lake trying to get neighbors to pledge to pollute less.

“It was very positive,” Brattebo said. “Only a couple people weren’t interested. I work at the West Valley School District’s Outdoor Learning Center. Today we had Greenacres Middle School sixth-graders, about 120 of them. I gave them all pledges to take home.”

It would help the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District immensely if its customers would cut back on the amount of pollution being dumped into its wastewater treatment program, officials say. Items like automatic dishwashing detergent high in phosphorous make it difficult for the sewer plant to comply with new state regulations. Phosphorous is one of the big chemicals robbing the river of oxygen and promoting algae growth. If the sewer plant can’t comply, the trouble just travels up the pipe, potentially harming the local economy because if local regulators determine the sewer plant can’t take on new customers, building construction has to stop.

The problem isn’t limited to wastewater traveling to the sewer plant. Ecologists are concerned about what’s seeping into the ground and ultimately the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer. In Spokane Valley, the aquifer and the river are almost one in the same. Between the state line and the eastern Spokane Valley city limits, there are places where the river practically disappears during dry months as the aquifer draws what it needs. Near Sullivan Road, water from the aquifer weeps from the river bank.

Pollution sources like septic tanks and oil washed from parking lots take a toll on the aquifer and eventually the river in Spokane Valley.

One big step in cleaning up pollution in Spokane Valley, where there are thousands of septic tanks in use, is thought to be eliminating the septic tanks altogether by hooking up suburban homes to public sewer.

But officials have hit a major snag in their efforts to eradicate septic systems, said Bruce Rawls, Spokane County utilities director. There are roughly 9,800 septic tanks in the county suburbs now, Rawls said. Most of those are in Spokane Valley. Spokane County has spent years running sewer line through neighborhoods in Spokane Valley and unincorporated north Spokane.

Anyone who wants sewer service in those areas should have a line to connect to by 2011, Rawls said.

However, there’s no way the sewage treatment plant could service everybody currently on septic. County officials have gone from giving septic users just one year to hookup to public sewer once it’s available to allowing them to wait until a new treatment plant is built. The wait could take years.

The region needs a new sewage treatment plant, Rawls said. Currently, sewered homes in Spokane Valley and parts of unincorporated Spokane County are connected to the municipal wastewater treatment plant in Spokane, which is nearing capacity.

State ecologists say there’s too much pollution in the Spokane River now to allow a new plant to dump treated water into the river. As conditions now stand, effluent from a newly built sewer plant may have to go somewhere else, perhaps used for irrigating or evaporating it in massive holding ponds.

Rawls said he’d prefer to the discharge the water from a new plant into the river. State ecologists have indicated that could be possible, provided the overall pollution level didn’t go up as a result, which has thrust the area’s biggest pollution source into the spotlight.

“In order to build a new treatment plant we need to prove we have offset a certain amount of phosphorous,” Rawls said.

That “proof” to which Rawls refers will involve showing that if the septic tanks are removed and harmful substances like phosphorous-laden automatic dishwashing detergent and lawn fertilizers are curbed, there will be room in the river for pollution from a new sewer plant.

Much work needs to be done, Rawls said. The county is spearheading a two-state study to determine just how much nonpoint pollution is out there and how it can be curbed.

Beyond removing septic tanks, it will take a massive volunteer effort to curb pollution, experts say. Washington has very few regulations for nonpoint pollution sources. One regulation that will help, a ban on phosphorous automatic dishwashing detergent in Spokane County, will take hold July 1, 2008.

But options are slim for homeowners who want to curb their pollution now. Beth Cocchiarella, one of the volunteers collecting watershed protection pledges with Brattebo, said she uses Seventh Generation, a nonphosphorous, powder dishwashing detergent.

Liberty Lake residents can get free 50-pound bags of nonphosphorous fertilizer from the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District. The fertilizer is made by the Greenacres Plant Food Center in Post Falls.

Non-Liberty Lake residents can buy the fertilizer at the Greenacres Plant Food Center’s shop at 4301 W. Seltice Way.


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