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Scientist’s departure taints river cleanup plan

The Washington Department of Ecology is capping three acres of land at the Murray Road site on the Spokane River with one foot of material because of high levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium and zinc.
 (Holly Pickett / The Spokesman-Review)
The Washington Department of Ecology is capping three acres of land at the Murray Road site on the Spokane River with one foot of material because of high levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium and zinc. (Holly Pickett / The Spokesman-Review)

A multihundred-million-dollar plan aimed at cleaning up the Spokane River and returning life to vast dead zones deep in Long Lake will be unveiled Wednesday.

But the Washington Department of Ecology scientist who spent the last year writing the plan abruptly quit at the end of August, claiming the proposal is scientifically indefensible and will violate state water quality laws.

“I have never authored anything that’s not defensible,” Drea Traeumer said in a recent interview. “My recommendations on how to proceed defensibly were disregarded.”

With her resignation, Traeumer becomes at least the third government scientist involved with river cleanup strategy in recent years to have jumped ship over concerns that the plan is too weak.

News of Traeumer’s departure has prompted jitters for city and business officials as they prepare to spend huge amounts of money to meet the plan’s requirements. The city of Spokane alone expects to spend nearly a half-billion dollars to more thoroughly purify wastewater dumped into the river.

For environmentalists, Traeumer’s exit has become powerful ammunition in an increasingly heated battle for a tougher river cleanup plan. “This is not going to hold up – when the staff itself is raising these red flags,” said Rick Eichstaedt, an attorney for the Center For Justice, a Spokane public interest law firm representing the Sierra Club.

Nine years in the making

Fed by rain and snowmelt from the Idaho Panhandle, the Spokane River flows west out of Lake Coeur d’Alene, through Post Falls and downtown Spokane, and eventually into the Columbia River. Each day, about 75 million gallons of treated wastewater – mostly from municipal sewage treatment plants, but also from Kaiser Aluminum and Inland Empire Paper Co. – is dumped into the river. Inland Empire Paper is owned by the same company that owns The Spokesman-Review.

Although the sewage and industrial effluent is treated, it contains a variety of pollutants, including about 200 pounds a day of phosphorus, according to reports from Ecology. Phosphorus acts as a fertilizer for aquatic plants, which has resulted in massive algae blooms – including toxic forms of blue-green algae – downstream in Long Lake, the Spokane River reservoir also known as Lake Spokane. When the algae dies, it sinks and decomposes, sucking oxygen out of the water that’s needed by fish and insects for breathing.

To meet federal law and downstream water quality standards of the Spokane Tribe of Indians, the state has spent nine years coming up with a plan to reduce the amount of phosphorus in the river.

A 2004 cleanup proposal from the Department of Ecology would have brought the river into compliance with federal law and was widely supported by environmental groups, but the plan was criticized by cities and factories along the river as being too expensive and likely unreachable. Ecology then began working with polluters – as well as the environmental groups – to come up with an acceptable plan.

Polluting decision

Among the changes was a decision by state and federal agencies to consider water flowing across the Washington-Idaho border as being essentially free of human-caused contaminants, even though the water contains phosphorus from wastewater treatment plants in Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls, said Rachael Paschal Osborn, an environmental activist and Spokane public interest attorney who has been closely involved in the process. The change allowed more pollution to be dumped in Washington.

“Basically, you fiddle with the parameters until you get the answers you want,” Osborn said.

Numerous scientists at Ecology and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – the federal agency that must approve any state cleanup plan – raised red flags over the proposed changes, saying they would result in a lesser cleanup and were possibly illegal.

EPA engineer Dave Ragsdale, who had been involved in the cleanup plan since 1999, said he told supervisors of his concerns, particularly the cumulative impact of pollution from Idaho. Ragsdale also published a study that refuted the cost concerns expressed by cities and businesses along the river.

Ragsdale, a 30-year veteran of the EPA, is no longer working on the Spokane River cleanup plan. He declined to say why.

“They came up with a new process and I’m not supposed to talk about it,” Ragsdale said, adding only, “I have a difference of opinion than the official agency perspective.”

Before Traeumer worked as Ecology’s lead cleanup plan scientist, the job was held by Ken Merrill, who continues to work for the agency but is no longer involved with the Spokane River. Merrill declined to provide details of his job transfer – “I can’t go into it,” he said – saying only that he was not formally taken off the job, but that he was no longer invited to participate in the process. “They didn’t like the way I was doing it,” he explained.

When pressed to elaborate, Merrill said, “I was trying to make it legally, scientifically and technically defensible. Management decided to go a different route from the route we developed.”

Traeumer also declined to comment, beyond issuing a statement in which she said the proposed cleanup plan would not be defensible either in court or in scientific journals. Traeumer said she sought the advice of outside scientists before tendering her resignation.

Ecology spokeswoman Jani Gilbert said Traeumer’s departure has put the agency in a difficult position.

“You never like somebody to leave nine-tenths of the way through a project,” Gilbert said.

But Gilbert denied accusations the plan was flawed.

“It’s an excellent water quality improvement plan. We arrived at it with the help of the community in the collaborative process,” Gilbert said. “It’s not only a good plan, but it’s a very legal plan.”

As for the issue of polluted water flowing over the state line, Gilbert said that under proposed changes, Idaho contributes roughly 5 percent of the human-caused phosphorus going into the river. “It’s almost negligible,” she said.

Attorneys with the Center For Justice see it differently. The proposed plan might offer vast improvements for the river, but it doesn’t go far enough and doesn’t include any enforceable standards for the first 20 years, Eichstaedt said.

“In their zeal to come out with a plan, they don’t even care about how legal the plan is,” he said. “Close doesn’t count. It’s not horseshoes or hand grenades.”

Center For Justice attorney Bonne Beavers reviewed a draft copy of the plan Friday and was “astonished” by its lack of standards, as well as a provision she said would allow the city of Liberty Lake to discharge additional phosphorus-tainted wastewater into the river.

“My jaw’s on the floor,” Beavers said. “You can’t make it worse while you’re trying to make it better. These permits allow them to make it worse. It’s crazy.”

Both Beavers and Eichstaedt said the proposed plan is not acceptable and would likely be appealed. Concerns expressed by agency scientists could help potential legal challenges, Eichstaedt said. “All of this will be part of the record if and when a judge reviews this. It will be fairly obvious that this approach is simply flawed.”

Anxiety for communities

The prospect of lawsuits is prompting some anxiety for communities and factories along the river preparing to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in wastewater purification technology.

“The city has some concerns about how all this plays out in the end,” said Lloyd Brewer, environmental program manager for the city of Spokane, which expects to spend at least $400 million on wastewater treatment plant improvements.

“I’m a little uneasy,” said Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke. The county expects to spend between $100 million and $150 million on a new wastewater treatment plant. Mielke also praised Ecology for attempting to develop a cleanup plan with achievable standards.

Within a decade, the proposed cleanup plan will result in a 95 percent reduction in the amount of phosphorus dumped into the river, said Gilbert, with the Department of Ecology. “If the Center For Justice wants to appeal (the plan), it will just delay improving the river,” Gilbert said. “It will put everything on hold.”

Eichstaedt, with the Center For Justice, said it’s not just environmentalists who are uneasy with the cleanup being offered for the Spokane River. He said the state should have spent more time listening to its own experts.

“Someone shouldn’t have to quit and shouldn’t have to come out to the press in order for a proper cleanup to occur,” he said. “It’s embarrassing our Department of Ecology is continuing to ignore her concerns and the concerns of others.”

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