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Pollution pipeline

State effort tries to determine the source, path of contaminants

LIBERTY LAKE – Arianne Fernandez donned elbow-length rubber gloves, a plastic apron and a splash-protection face mask before lowering a collection jar into a manhole.

The cloudy water she brought up came from Liberty Lake’s sewer system.

At the very least, it contained E. coli bacteria. Most likely, the water also played host to a variety of other contaminants, such as flame retardants, PCBs, metals and dioxins. Fernandez, a hazardous waste specialist for Washington’s Department of Ecology, is working on a $980,000 effort to determine how pollutants enter the Spokane River. Sampling sewer pipes is part of the process.

It’s hot and dirty work. On an 85-degree afternoon last week, Fernandez and two other members of the Urban Waters Initiative team were sweating in their plastic suits by the time they finished filling a carton of amber bottles with effluent.

Over the next year, they’ll take dozens of samples from sewers and stormwater pipes. Detailed lab analysis – costing about $2,000 per sample set – will reveal the pollutants’ chemical fingerprints, yielding clues about the pollution’s origins and helping the scientists track contaminants back up the pipes to the source.

“It involves a lot of sleuthing,” said Cathy Cochrane, an Ecology spokeswoman. “It’s sort of an Indiana Jones effort to find out what we’ve got coming out of the sewers and into the river.”

“They’re calling us the ‘river detectives,’ ” added Sandy Phillips, a Spokane Regional Health District employee who’s part of the Urban Waters team.

The work is part of a $2.1 million pollution detection program under way in three of the state’s most contaminated waterways: Seattle’s Duwamish River, Tacoma’s Commencement Bay and the Spokane River.

The Spokane River contains a toxic brew of PCBs, heavy metals, and the highest of levels of flame retardants found in Washington’s rivers and lakes. Some pollution sources are known. Others remain mysteries.

Flame retardants are one of the puzzles. A statewide study done in 2005 and 2006 indicated that Spokane River fish had flame retardant levels 25 times higher on average than those found in Lake Washington, the next-highest site sampled.

Flame retardants appear in furniture, mattresses, clothing, computers, and other foam and plastic products. Because of their prevalence, traces of flame retardants are commonly found in house dust as well.

Though they save lives, flame retardants accumulate in animals’ fatty tissue. They’ve been linked to liver, thyroid and developmental problems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“We don’t know what the source of flame retardants is in the Spokane River,” Phillips said. “There’s no big manufacturer that uses them.”

Detecting the less obvious sources of contaminants is a key goal of the study.

Big, well-known polluters – such as North Idaho’s historic mining district, Kaiser Aluminum and Inland Empire Paper Co. – “get looked at under a microscope,” said Ted Hamlin, a stormwater inspector for Ecology. (Inland Empire Paper, which produces newsprint, is owned by Cowles Co., which publishes The Spokesman-Review.)

Others operate below regulators’ radar, Hamlin said. As part of their work, team members will visit small companies, getting the word out about proper storage and disposal of toxic compounds.

Testing done at sewers in Liberty Lake also will help establish how household use of chemicals contributes to water pollution.

“People don’t realize it, but tires are 1 percent zinc,” Hamlin said.

The rubber chafes away over time, bringing a flush of zinc into stormwater systems after major rainfalls. Anti-corrosive finishes on metal roofs are also made of zinc compounds, and wash off over time, Hamlin said.

Team members are awaiting results of baseline testing done last year that will identify which sewer and stormwater pipes are carrying the highest contaminant loads. They’ll zero in on those areas.

“When we know which ones are the hottest, we’ll start working our way up the pipe,” Fernandez said.

Results are expected next year.

Contact Becky Kramer at (208) 765-7122, or