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Lawsuit may halt sewage plant

County lacked adequate PCB plan, groups say

Spokane County commissioners moved Tuesday to intervene in a lawsuit that could mothball the county’s new $173 million sewage treatment plant.

The action came a day after commissioners prepared an invitation for Gov. Chris Gregoire to attend a dedication ceremony, tentatively scheduled for Dec. 1.

The ceremony anticipates that the state Department of Ecology will issue a permit by the end of November that will allow the plant to discharge treated wastewater into the Spokane River.

A lawsuit filed Oct. 21 in U.S. District Court in Seattle contends the permit would violate the federal Clean Water Act because state regulators failed to set a limit for discharge of cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

In the lawsuit, the Sierra Club and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy ask a federal judge to order the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review the Department of Ecology action.

Jani Gilbert, spokeswoman for the Department of Ecology, said the agency hasn’t decided whether to seek intervention in the suit.

The plaintiffs say the EPA failed its duty to review the state decision not to include a PCB limit in Spokane River discharge permits.

The Department of Ecology chose to tackle the problem with a task force of regulators, dischargers and environmental groups. The task force is charged with finding the sources of PCBs and preventing them from entering sewage systems.

County Commissioner Todd Mielke said the lawsuit seeks a standard that is “way beyond” what is reasonable.

Spokane County Utilities Director Bruce Rawls said the Spokane Tribe has a standard of less than four parts per quadrillion, but current technology can’t detect PCBs below about 100 parts per billion.

There are a million billion units in a quadrillion.

The tribe and other organizations, including the Spokane Riverkeeper project of the Center for Justice, have endorsed the task force approach to PCB reduction.

Based on city of Spokane tests, Rawls said he believes the county’s new treatment plant will be 80 to 90 percent more effective at removing PCBs than any other municipal treatment plant that discharges into the Spokane River.

The county plant will process wastewater that otherwise would go to Spokane’s treatment plant, but critic Rachael Paschal Osborn noted that the county built the plant to increase capacity.

The federal Clean Water Act doesn’t allow any new discharge of PCBs, according to Osborn. She is a staff attorney for the Center for Environmental Law and Policy and a volunteer in the Sierra Club’s Spokane River Project.

Osborn said the lawsuit plaintiffs believe Spokane County should use land disposal for all its treated wastewater.

The county has acquired 346 acres at Saltese Flats, south of Spokane Valley, as a backup disposal site. Development of the site would cost more than $40 million.