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Our View: Need for sewage treatment plant growing urgent

There are those who think Spokane County was too hasty in signing a contract with CH2M Hill Constructors Inc. to design, build and operate the county’s long-debated sewage treatment facility.

That’s a hard conclusion to understand.

The plant was expected to be in operation now under the projections made in 2002, when county officials first determined it was needed. They didn’t account for the regulatory morass that would bog them down to the point that now, as they are finally signing the contract, they already are running out of time.

Urgency, yes. Haste, no.

A combination of stakeholders – public and private dischargers, regulators, environmentalists, Indian tribes and others – spent long, deliberative months hammering out their differences about the best way to protect the quality of the Spokane River and the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer while assuring the continuation of basic wastewater-treatment needs for the community’s residences and businesses.

Those talks produced surprising but commendable agreements, only to be thwarted when the federal Environmental Protection Agency reversed itself, requiring for the first time that phosphates entering the river in Idaho must be considered when treatment standards are calculated in Washington.

That flip-flop by the EPA, besides threatening sterner requirements for the county and other wastewater dischargers, is costing precious time as regulators conduct their scientific analysis.

Spokane County can’t just wait, however. In mid-2013, under current projections, the county will surpass the 10 million gallons a day of capacity it buys from the city of Spokane’s sewage treatment plant. By starting now on its own plant, assuming delays can be avoided, the county may get the facility designed, constructed, tested and ready to run by 2012.

That’s not much cushion. Without enough sewage treatment, the county could face a building moratorium. Also – and the irony is glaring – the longer that river-quality concerns stand in the way of sewage-treatment capacity, the harder it is for the county to eliminate septic tanks in the name of aquifer protection.

The issue here is not whether the level of phosphorus in the Spokane River should be reduced. Everyone agrees on that. It’s a matter of how thorough the removal should be – or, when do the shrinking increments of improvement no longer justify soaring costs?

At stake, ultimately, is the permit that lets the county discharge highly treated water into the river. As a safeguard, county officials are looking at several alternatives for depositing the treated water on land rather than in the river, but they all would add millions to the price tag, which, at $170 million, is already more than double the original estimate.

Spokane County Utilities Director Bruce Rawls says he trusts the planned technology, which is under his control, to meet all reasonable standards. He’s more worried about how much time it will take and what consequences the county’s inhabitants will bear.

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