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River’s health enters Prop 4 debate

Just how polluted the Spokane River is became a bone of contention Friday between panelists debating a major change to the Spokane City Charter.

Among the nation’s most polluted, said supporters of Proposition 4, which asks voters to add what they call a Community Bill of Rights to the charter. One of those rights would allow people to sue on behalf of the river or other parts of the environment and force a cleanup.

The river was listed in a 2004 report as one of the most polluted in the United States, said Chad Nicholson, campaign coordinator for Envision Spokane, which is pushing for passage. Signs warn people not to eat the fish they catch, or to report sewage being dumped into it, he said: “The river is dying.”

But supporters who cite that 2004 listing never mention that the same group, American Rivers, listed the Spokane River as one of the nation’s success stories in 2005, countered Kate McCaslin, a former county commissioner and opponent of the proposal.

“In all the years since then, Spokane has never been listed as an endangered river again,” she added to the applause of an audience attending a Greater Spokane Inc. breakfast.

Who’s right? “The truth is definitely somewhere in the middle,” Michael Garrity, Washington state conservation director for American Rivers, said Friday.

The Spokane River was on the American Rivers Most Endangered Rivers List in 2004, for excessive phosphorus dumping from sewage, as well as mine wastes and increased withdrawals from groundwater. It was listed as a success story in 2005 because the state Department of Ecology was negotiating reductions in phosphorus. One of those changes, a law that bans phosphorus in dishwashing detergent, is in place but the department’s master plan on cutting phosphorus, which was originally scheduled to be released last year, was delayed until just last month, and still needs state and federal approval.

In 2004, the group considered the Spokane “a significant river with a significant threat” and in 2005 wanted to note there were signs of progress being made, Garrity said. The group is waiting to see if the plan will work although it does have concerns about the delays. American Rivers does not routinely put rivers on its list several years in a row unless new problems or threats arise, he added.

Prop 4 contains a series of charter amendments that would establish different rights in the city. The amendments cover such things as housing, health care, wages and neighborhood control over development. How the neighborhoods could exert that control prompted another disagreement in the debate on whether a small minority could block a project that has received all other city approval.

The changes are needed to protect citizens and give local businesses an advantage over large national corporations, said Kai Huschke: “How bad does it have to get?”

The proposal would turn Spokane into a Petri dish for a long list of changes that haven’t been tried as a whole anywhere, said McCaslin: “Forgive me if I do not want to be the first to lift the lid on this Pandora’s Box.”

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