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Thu., Oct. 2, 2008

Our View: EPA error shouldn’t deter work for a cleaner river

The Environmental Protection Agency is sorry.

Sorry it didn’t approach the cleanup of the Spokane River in a regional way from the very start of the TMDL process. TMDL (for total maximum daily load) is jargon that translates, loosely, to “river cleanup plan.” In this case, it means the cleanup of phosphorus that feeds algae that sucks the river dry of dissolved oxygen when it dies.

Almost four years ago, a group began meeting to see if the cleanup could be done in a collaborative way. Dozens of men and women from Washington’s Department of Ecology, from the industries that discharge into the Spokane River, from environmental groups and from the municipalities along the river worked together on a plan they all could all live with.

It was mind-numbing, technical work. The meetings stretched for hours. These were busy people from a variety of occupations. They ran local governments, oversaw utility departments, pioneered water conservation efforts, worked as industry bigwigs. They met in good faith that their hard, thankless work would create a unique river cleanup plan.

Sid Fredrickson, Coeur d’Alene’s wastewater utility superintendent, often jokes that TMDL stands for “too many damn lawyers.” No one wanted too many of them involved in this river cleanup. And it all looked good – for a while. Ecology was even getting ready to issue permits to river dischargers that would have reduced phosphorus output by 95 percent.

But the EPA now says sorry, its methodology was wrong. The EPA says it should have counted Idaho’s phosphorus discharge in a more accurate way. So now permits remain on hold, including the permit for Spokane County’s proposed wastewater treatment plant. This delay means that septic tank removal over the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer will go even more slowly.

It could take a year – or more – to sort everything out. And people no longer seem in much of a collaborative mood. By the way, if the collaboration had worked as planned, the river cleanup would be in process now.

Washington, Idaho and Inland Northwest tribal leaders face regional problems in issues such transportation, law enforcement, aquifer protection and services for transient poor people. May this TMDL experience serve as a reminder that regional problems demand regional solutions – from beginning to end. The borders that separate us are often artificial. Rivers ignore them. In some cases, leaders should, too.

Meanwhile, the EPA is sorry about this one. So should we all be.

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