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Wed., May 4, 2011

Editorial: River PCBs force city to dig deep for murky aim

As penitence for not stemming the flow of polychlorinated biphenyls into the Spokane River, the Spokane City Council recently agreed to pay $300,000 to settle a threatened lawsuit.

Polychlorinated biphenyls, better known as PCBs, are not something we want in our river, or anywhere else. The Environmental Protection Agency considers them a probable human carcinogen. They have been banned since 1979 because of the widespread threat they pose to human health, but for 50 years before that their heat-resistant qualities made them popular as coolants and lubricants. They also showed up in a range of consumer products including paints, adhesives and carbonless copy paper.

The city of Spokane made no such products. Nor did it manufacture any PCBs. Its fault was in not doing enough to keep PCBs, which can be just about everywhere, from washing into its storm water collection system and flowing to the river.

PCBs are found in old industrial waste sites, for sure, but they can be transported on the wind or in the water. Dissolved in water, they can evaporate and return with rainfall and alight anywhere. They can be inhaled, swallowed or absorbed through the skin.

Some PCBs undoubtedly wash directly into the river from a variety of sources including the banks that line it, miles and miles from the city of Spokane. Unlike the city, though, riverbanks don’t have a treasury to sue.

Still, harmful as PCBs are, it’s probably worth $300,000 to remove them – even if the city is concurrently cutting services and laying off employees to manage severe budget problems.

Except the $300,000 won’t remove any PCBs. Instead, it will reimburse legal expenses and underwrite some educational and demonstration programs, including by the California-based Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment.

The legal proceedings will not be without promising outcomes. The city will be removing and testing sediment from storm drains near high PCB concentrations. That activity should make actual reductions. The city also will launch an “adaptive management” plan, based on a scientifically sound approach: Try certain strategies, see if they work and make changes if they don’t.

But how accurately such a program will be able to measure its successes or failures is problematical, given the wide number of variables that could cloud the findings.

It’s significant that the plaintiff in this case was the private, nonprofit Center for Justice, not a state or federal regulatory agency. The state Department of Ecology has opted against litigation. It prefers different ways to attack the PCB problem than taking one discharger after another to court.

Among its more significant approaches: cleaning up previous industrial sites such as the Kaiser Trentwood plant from which 1,700 tons of PCB-contaminated soil was removed four years ago.

In a source assessment report to be released this month, the agency is expected to show that signs can already be seen of decreasing PCBs. And that’s before the city of Spokane invests tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars in educational demonstration projects.

The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

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