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County braces for appeals to river water quality plan

Sun., March 7, 2010, 2 a.m.

A new plan for reducing algae-feeding pollution in the Spokane River is a mixed blessing for Spokane County’s $167 million sewage treatment project.

The plan should enable the county to get a river discharge permit for its new 8 million-gallons-per-day treatment plant. A supplemental $42 million project to dispose of treated effluent in a wetland probably wouldn’t be needed.

But new restrictions on other dischargers could result in lawsuits that keep the treatment plant from going into operation soon enough to avoid a construction moratorium in Spokane Valley.

“It certainly increases our risk,” said Spokane County Utilities Director Bruce Rawls.

The county treatment plant is under construction at 1004 N. Freya St., and is expected to open in January 2012. It will process sewage that currently goes to the Spokane municipal treatment plant, where Spokane County is expected to run out of contracted capacity in mid- to late 2013.

Most of the county sewage comes from Spokane Valley, where the county provides sewer service. A construction moratorium may be necessary if the county runs out of treatment capacity.

Consequently, county officials are offering tentative support for a proposal to trade phosphorus credits – much as carbon-emission privileges may be traded in the fight against global warming.

Phosphorus promotes the growth of algae and other aquatic plants that remove oxygen from Lake Spokane when they die and decay. The substance already is banned from dishwashing detergent sold in Spokane County, but it is common in industrial processes as well as fertilizer.

Phosphorus is one of three problems addressed by the new total maximum daily load plan, and the one that most affects Spokane River water quality. The new TMDL plan is much more stringent than present standards.

County commissioners said in a Feb. 23 letter that Inland Empire Paper Co. in Millwood believes its new phosphorus limit is “technologically unattainable.”

Commissioners said the newsprint manufacturer wants to acquire a pound a day of phosphorus-discharging privilege from the county, and they are “very interested” in helping with a regional phosphorus-trading program.

First, though, commissioners wrote to the company, they need state assurance that the county has credits to spare and that trading them is permissible.

The paper mill “is one of our largest employers and taxpayers,” commissioners stated.

Inland Empire Paper is a subsidiary of Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

Rawls said selling phosphorus credits – earned by eliminating septic tanks in Spokane Valley – could benefit sewer ratepayers.

But the primary reason for helping Inland Empire Paper and other dischargers is “so they don’t perceive that their only alternative is to appeal the TMDL,” Rawls said.

The TMDL rules must be in place before Spokane County can get a permit to dump treated effluent into the river.

Already, the paper mill and three Idaho dischargers – the cities of Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls and the Hayden Area Regional Sewer Board – have asked the Washington Department of Ecology to reconsider the new standards.

Previous TMDL proposals excluded the Idaho dischargers. The three municipal treatment plant operators have hired attorneys to argue that the new plan favors their Washington counterparts.

The plan establishes fixed amounts of phosphorus, measured in pounds per day, that each treatment plant is allowed to discharge.

Coeur d’Alene wastewater superintendent Sid Fredrickson said the new standards allow Spokane to discharge 42 parts of phosphorus per billion parts of effluent, while his plant is limited to 36 parts per billion.

Fredrickson said regulators told him they have more confidence in Spokane’s performance because of more frequent testing. But Coeur d’Alene’s offer to increase its testing was refused, he said.

“We’re not even sure we could meet 42 (the proposed Spokane standard),” Fredrickson said. “We think we can meet 50 as a seasonal average.”

Terry Werner, the Post Falls public service director, had similar doubts about meeting the new standards.

“Basically, this could have Post Falls hitting the wall as far as any (population) growth,” Werner said.

He said the Idaho dischargers would prefer a population-based phosphorus allocation.

Fredrickson and Werner said a regional phosphorus-trading program might be helpful, but they weren’t optimistic that state and federal regulators would approve it.

“I think the chances of that are slim to none, and slim left the building,” Fredrickson said.

If the Department of Ecology provides no relief, Fredrickson plans to urge the Coeur d’Alene City Council to “proceed with a higher level of appeal.”

Christine Psyk, a regional EPA associate director for water issues, said a trading program is “conceptually” possible but would require “rigorous” management.

Avista Corp. also wants Ecology to revise the TMDL rules because, for the first time, the company would be held responsible for oxygen depletion in Lake Spokane. Avista operates the phosphorus-trapping dam that created Lake Spokane.

Spokeswoman Anna Scarlett said company officials haven’t decided whether to mount a legal challenge. She said they haven’t yet determined what would be required to meet the new standards or how much it would cost.

“What we do know is it will be a long process and an expensive process, and it involves a number of parties,” Scarlett said.

Dischargers that don’t oppose the new standards are Spokane, Spokane County, the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District and the Kaiser-Trentwood aluminum plant.

The Ecology Department’s “dispute resolution” review won’t prevent the EPA from making its decision, which is expected later this month.

If Ecology changes its mind, though, the EPA will have to start over.

The biggest threat to Spokane County’s project is that, if the EPA is challenged in court, a judge may put the standards on hold for months or years.

Rawls said Spokane County may have to go ahead and develop a wetland disposal system in the Saltese Flats area south of Spokane Valley if a lawsuit causes delay.

That would increase costs by one-fourth and drive rising sewer-user bills even higher.

So far, Rawls said, the Saltese Flats project is “discretionary,” although it might be a good idea to acquire the land.

“It becomes sort of our insurance policy for the future,” he said.

A tentative budget for the wetland project includes $2.5 million to acquire all the necessary land and easements.

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