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Paper mill, state close to reaching pollution plan

OLYMPIA – After seven years of sometimes contentious negotiations, the state and Inland Empire Paper Co. in Spokane Valley may be a month away from reaching an agreement on a permit that restricts pollution flowing from the paper mill into the Spokane River.

Officials from the state Department of Ecology and Inland, which like The Spokesman-Review is owned by Cowles Co., agree that the state will likely issue a draft permit in early June that will put strict limits on chemical pollution connected to the paper-making process.

Kelly Susewind, the Ecology Department’s water quality program manager, said the permit will likely take into account recent studies on phosphorus that will allow the mill to meet tough standards for that chemical with the planned upgrades to its discharge system.

The company has spent $9 million on upgrades over the last seven years, and plans to spend another $10 million if it can get a permit with a limit it can reach, said Doug Krapas, Inland’s environmental manager. If it gets an unworkable limit, Inland will shut down the mill.

“We’re getting down to the 11th hour, 59th minute,” Krapas said. “I’m convinced we’re going to find a solution to this.”

In recent months, negotiations have involved Gov. Chris Gregoire’s staff, Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant and top company executives. Last month, Inland officials considered, but eventually rejected, asking the Legislature to insert a “proviso” into the state budget, directing the department to issue a permit. That idea was discussed with the staff of Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, but never reached the point of being written down for formal consideration, she said.

The idea was dismissed by Inland officials, Krapas said: “We never had to go down such a path because we’ve never lost communications with Ecology.”

Ecology officials heard rumors of a possible proviso and told staff from the mill it would slow things down, not speed them up. Susewind said he told Inland, “This is going to set us back. Let’s settle on the work at hand.”

At issue is the amount of phosphorus the mill would be allowed to release under the new permit. The mill adds phosphorus to its wastewater to help microorganisms eat woodwaste; some also is a byproduct of paper production. With new equipment, the mill’s wastewater would drop from 16 parts per million to 70 parts per billion. Because of stricter rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, however, the state was setting the limit at 36 parts per billion, a level the company said it couldn’t meet.

But not all phosphorus has the same effect on stimulating algae growth, the main concern for the Spokane River, particularly downstream in Long Lake. Recent research by the University of Washington suggests most of the mill’s phosphorus – as much as 95 percent – doesn’t boost algae. The discussion now is how to factor that into the phosphorus limit that will be in the permit, Krapas and Susewind said.

The draft permit will be available for public comment.

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