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Phosphorus permits a year off

Water rushes at Devil’s Toenail downriver from Spokane.   (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Water rushes at Devil’s Toenail downriver from Spokane. (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

EPA apologizes for error delaying river cleanup

Crafting a new plan to limit phosphorus discharges into the Spokane River will take at least another year, state and federal officials announced Friday.

Phosphorus is harmful to the river’s aquatic health. Found in fertilizers and treated sewage, phosphorus contributes to algae blooms and water quality problems in the reservoir behind Long Lake Dam, including low levels of dissolved oxygen crucial for rainbow trout.

After years of complicated negotiations, the Washington Department of Ecology was preparing to issue final permits to Washington dischargers this fall that would have reduced their long-term phosphorus output to the river by 95 percent.

But the permits were put on hold in early September after the Environmental Protection Agency announced it erred when calculating phosphorus limits for Idaho dischargers. Washington permit levels were based on the EPA’s assumption that Idaho dischargers would contribute such small amounts of phosphorus to the river that the levels would be virtually undetectable at the state line. That finding wasn’t “legally defensible,” said Christine Psyk, associate director in the EPA’s Office of Water.

“I … want to apologize to all those dedicated stakeholders who were poised to take action to clean up the phosphorus entering the river,” Psyk said Friday during a briefing in Spokane. “I regret that EPA’s decision to change course will result in Ecology and others having to once again revise the permits.”

The apology didn’t appease some river dischargers.

“I’ve heard very little tangible information here today about what the path forward is,” said Bruce Rawls, Spokane County’s utilities director.

By December, the county officials had hoped to sign a contract for a $100 million wastewater treatment plant with advanced phosphorus removal capabilities. But Rawls said it makes no sense to start construction on a treatment plant without clear discharge limits.

The agencies say it will take at least 12 months to issue new discharge permits, Rawls said. “I’m predicting two years.”

Meanwhile, the delay affects Spokane County’s ability to get homes off septic systems and on sewer systems, said county Commissioner Todd Mielke.

“We have 10,000 septic systems in Spokane Valley sitting directly over the aquifer,” he said.

Others said the EPA should have recognized the problem with its Idaho methodology earlier.

“This is not a new issue,” said Kris Holm, an attorney for the city of Coeur d’Alene. “This was brought up in 2004 and 2006 during the public comments. … We all took EPA’s original legal position on faith.”

Psyk said the EPA initially thought its position was defensible. Idaho dischargers would have been held to phosphorus reduction standards six times greater than those protecting Chesapeake Bay, which is a national benchmark, she said. “We thought our low phosphorus would meet the test of ‘clean enough.’ ”

However, Psyk said, interstate water policy is an evolving area. Over time, the agency came to question whether it could legally defend its position, she added.

To protect water quality in Long Lake, where trout struggle to find cold, oxygenated water during summer months, Washington law says human-caused phosphorus emissions can’t reduce dissolved oxygen levels by more than 0.2 parts per million. Together, the discharge limits in the proposed Idaho and Washington permits would have exceeded that.

“It’s a system with very little capacity to absorb oxygen-depleting nutrients,” Psyk said.

Over the next six months, the EPA and Ecology will run new computer models to divvy up the phosphorus load between Idaho and Washington dischargers.

Ecology officials also said they would take a closer look at how Avista Corp.’s management of the Long Lake Dam contributes to low oxygen levels in the reservoir.

Some dischargers questioned Washington’s stringent phosphorus standard, wondering if it could be relaxed.

“We’re not holding out a lot of hope that’s a successful route to go,” said Dave Peeler, special assistant to Department of Ecology Director Jay Manning.

The standard was written to protect Washington’s coldwater fish, such as the Spokane River’s native redband trout population; to prevent toxic blue-green algae outbreaks; and improve recreation experiences, he said.

When new phosphorus-reducing permits take effect, the river will improve in all three areas, Peeler said.

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

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