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City, air agency could settle fine, upgrade incinerator

Mercury pollution detected at waste facility

Spokane would have to pay a $5,000 fine and upgrade its regional trash incinerator under a proposed deal being considered by Mayor Mary Verner.

The settlement, proposed by the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency late last month, is in response to a violation related to mercury pollution in June at the Waste-to-Energy Plant.

Under the deal, the full fine would be $9,217, but $4,217 of that would be suspended. The city would also have to run an existing pollution control system that uses carbon as a condition of operating the plant and install monitoring equipment to help ensure that the process is working.

April Westby, an environmental engineer who oversees the permit for the air agency, said the agency is willing to reduce the fine because the city has agreed to upgrade pollution control at the plant.

“We were more interested in trying to ensure that this type of violation wouldn’t happen in the future,” Westby said.

The air agency issued the Spokane Regional Solid Waste System, which owns the incinerator and is run by the city of Spokane, a violation notice on Oct. 27. Under the agreement the city would admit that the plant violated the permit. That’s a reversal of the city’s earlier position.

Spokane has long operated a carbon-based pollution control system at the plant, which is extremely effective at reducing mercury emissions. However, during annual testing, the plant turned off the system during one set of tests in order to prove that it could meet requirements without running it.

Three measurements were taken and averaged to determine if the plant meets the rules. In the mercury test this year, one of the three readings was more than twice the limit. The other two were within the standard, but the average was above the Environmental Protection Agency requirement.

The plant also tested emissions with the carbon system running, and results showed pollution well below limits. City officials had earlier argued that because the plant easily met standards while the carbon system was operating, it didn’t violate the permit.

Air agency officials argue that no one required the plant to test without the carbon system and that turning it off meant plant officials were taking a chance that could result in violations.

Russ Menke, director of the Spokane Regional Solid Waste System, said it will cost the system about $40,000 to upgrade the plant in response to the mercury violation. He said the carbon monitoring system will be installed in January.

He said the change won’t make much of a difference since the solid waste system already was committed to using the carbon system.

“We’re just going to monitor it a little bit more,” he said.

Menke said plant officials have been unable to determine what caused the spike in mercury emissions during the test.

“There was obviously more mercury in the waste than we’ve ever seen before,” Menke said.

Mayor Mary Verner has until Monday to decide if the city will accept a settlement proposal.

City Councilman Richard Rush, a member of the Solid Waste Liaison Committee, called the proposed settlement “generous” and questioned why the city bothered testing the system without the extra pollution control.

“Why we would want to turn it off for a test when we have (the system installed) is mystifying,” Rush said.

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