A proposal in the Washington Legislature would relax the deadline for cleaning up the Spokane River and other state waterways, allowing wastewater dischargers up to 20 years to meet stringent new limits for phosphorus and other pollutants.
Supporters say that Senate Bill 6036 is a practical measure, designed to end years of legal and bureaucratic gridlock that has stymied river cleanup. Giving dischargers some flexibility could lead to faster results, said Melissa Gildersleeve, manager of the Department of Ecology’s water quality policy group.
Environmental groups oppose the bill, noting that it potentially doubles the timeline for hitting pollution targets.
Current state law requires dischargers to meet new pollutant limits within a decade. The Senate bill and a companion House bill allow for two five-year extensions. The bill is up for a hearing today in the Senate Environment, Water and Energy Committee.
“This bill says you’ve got to use advanced technology and show that you’re substantially reducing pollution before we will give you an additional five years,” Gildersleeve said. “It gives dischargers the go-ahead to move. … Right now, everyone is just fighting.”
Ecology officials drafted the bill at the suggestion of Inland Empire Paper Co., which discharges treated wastewater into the river from its Millwood newsprint plant. The plant is owned by Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.
Doug Krapas, Inland Empire Paper’s environmental manager, said the company spent $5 million on new technology to reduce its phosphorus contributions to the river. Through water recycling and other measures, the plant also cut back the amount of wastewater flowing into the river.
Despite the work, plant managers anticipate having difficulty meeting the phosphorus limits in its new discharge permit, which the state will issue in about a year. The bill would also benefit other dischargers, including municipal sewage treatment plants, Krapas said.
Phosphorus is detrimental to the river’s aquatic health. It contributes to algae blooms and low levels of dissolved oxygen in the reservoir behind Long Lake Dam, which harms the lake’s rainbow trout population.
Changes outlined in the bill also would apply to other state waterways. Ecology’s Gildersleeve said the flexibility could help other dischargers facing stringent new limits on other pollutants, such as heavy metals and PCBs.
The Sierra Club opposes the bill. “This seems like an effort to complicate this already difficult legal process that we have on the Spokane River,” said Rick Eichstaedt, an attorney for the Center for Justice, a public interest law firm that represents the Sierra Club on Spokane River issues.
Eichstaedt said extending the deadlines contradicts the federal Clean Water Act, which requires dischargers to meet water quality standards as soon as possible. Washington would need to get approval from the Environmental Protection Agency to make the change. That might be difficult, Eichstaedt said.
The bills were introduced Monday, which didn’t give environmental groups much time to weigh in, he said.
“We need to look at what this will mean for salmon-bearing streams,” he said. “… It isn’t something that should be rushed through.”
Gildersleeve isn’t sure about the bill’s prospects. Wednesday is the deadline for nonbudget bills to move out of committee.
“We’re running out of time,” she said. “I know that the environmental community has concerns. I wish we had more time to talk through the concerns.”
State Reps. Timm Ormsby and Alex Wood are sponsors of the House version of the bill. Both are Spokane Democrats.