A plan to remove oxygen-robbing contaminants from the Spokane River received final approval Friday.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added its blessing to the plan to remove 87,000 pounds a year of algae-feeding phosphorus from the river.
The river cleanup plan has sparked talk of lawsuits from environmental groups, as well as businesses and municipalities that discharge into the river. A cross-state phosphorus-credit trading program, for which EPA has declared its support, may go a long way toward preventing some of that litigation.
Lawsuits could delay the 2012 opening of a new $167 million sewage treatment plant Spokane County is building to serve most of the Spokane Valley, where dwindling treatment capacity could force a development moratorium.
Litigation also could boost the project cost by one-fourth if it prevents the county from discharging treated effluent into the Spokane River. A $42 million land-disposal system might have to be substituted.
Christine Psyk, deputy director of the EPA’s Office of Water and Watersheds, said in a teleconference Friday that the agency would “strongly support” a phosphorus trading system to help implement the river cleanup.
“We will be working very closely with the states (of Washington and Idaho) to make sure that whatever plan they come up with is one that will be implementable,” Psyk said.
Spokane County Utilities Director Bruce Rawls was encouraged about the possibility for keeping other dischargers from suing.
“I believe that, if an offsets and trading policy can be developed fairly soon, that will resolve many of their concerns,” Rawls said.
A trading system also could be useful to Avista Corp., which will be required to help clean up Long Lake, a reservoir which was created by one of the company’s hydroelectric dams on the river.
However, trading of phosphorus credits would be one more reason for the Sierra Club to challenge the total maximum daily load standard. The environmental group opposes any new discharge into the river before it is cleaned up.
“We think there is not reasonable assurance that this TMDL is going to clean up the river,” Sierra Club spokeswoman Rachael Paschal Osborn said. “We had hoped EPA would fix some of the problems. Apparently, they have not.”
She said the club hasn’t decided whether to sue, but “it’s a possibility.”
Psyk said EPA officials anticipated litigation and insisted on a “legally defensible plan, which this is.”
Avista and some dischargers joined the Sierra Club in asking the state Department of Ecology to reconsider aspects of the plan. But the department, which developed the plan, decided earlier this month to stick with it.
Some of the critics were heartened by the EPA’s support for a trading system they consider essential.
“That’s very encouraging,” said Coeur d’Alene wastewater superintendent Sid Fredrickson.
He said a lawsuit is still a possibility, but a decision by the Coeur d’Alene City Council is “several weeks out.”
“Certainly, that’s something that’s not going to be taken lightly,” Fredrickson said.
Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls and the Hayden Area Regional Sewer Board have objected that the TMDL plan favors Spokane and Spokane County by allowing them to discharge a higher rate of phosphorus. Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch issued a joint statement condemning EPA for its support of the plan.
The plan sets the same maximum – 50 parts per billion – for all dischargers, but allows large dischargers to come closer to the maximum because they test their output more frequently.
Representatives for the other Idaho dischargers weren’t available, but Fredrickson said all of them are committed to providing more-advanced sewage treatment.
“That’s a given,” he said. “The only thing we are arguing is how low can we go.”
For the Inland Empire Paper Co. mill in Millwood, the issue is survival, according to environmental manager Doug Krapas. He said the plant generates a different kind of phosphorus that is much more difficult to remove, and it can’t meet the standard without a trading program.
Inland Empire Paper is owned by Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.
“We’re diligently trying to find a means to be able to agree with this TMDL,” Krapas said. “We’re trying to find every way we can not to have to go down that path” of suing to block the plan.
Speed Fitzhugh, Avista’s Spokane River license manager, said it was “premature” to comment on the possibility of a lawsuit or the cleanup cost that will be passed to ratepayers.
“Our goal is to move forward,” he said.
Fitzhugh said the company isn’t sure some parts of its cleanup requirement can be accomplished, but Avista is studying possibilities for keeping nearby phosphorus from entering Long Lake.
Wetlands, shoreline erosion, lawn care, septic tanks and aquatic weed management all are being considered, Fitzhugh said.
Psyk said state officials are already working on a trading plan, and it is “certainly the kind of work that can be done in a fairly reasonable time frame if there is a commitment to do it.”
David Croxton, an EPA watershed manager, said the agency is supplying money to help identify “nonpoint” sources of contamination, such as septic tanks and lawn fertilization, that dischargers could fix for credit.
Encouraging a sewer system to replace septic tanks in the Suncrest area is a possibility some officials have considered.
“Those sorts of septic-system places will be good areas to look at for purposes of trading,” and offers of financial help might encourage homeowners to consider a sewer system, Psyk said.