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Spokane River cleanup: How far, how fast?

Prevention: Comprehensive approach is less costly, has reduced pollution in rivers

The Spokane River is one of the most studied rivers in our state. You might hear some people say it is the most polluted. True, our river has many water quality problems, including low oxygen and high levels of a toxic chemical called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, but we aren’t alone. There are more than 5,500 watersheds in the nation with PCB problems and fewer than 500 of them have formal water quality improvement plans.

How do we best tackle the river’s pollution problems? The good news is that our community leads the way in finding solutions in Washington and nationally.

We have stepped into this river before and it has changed us.

The Department of Ecology is part of a local collaborative effort to reduce PCBs and related toxic chemicals in the Spokane River.

Collectively, we are identifying the sources of the pollution while taking steps to reduce PCBs in our environment, and concurrently measuring the results.

We expect this will be a faster and less expensive way to a clean river. If we don’t see measureable progress, the DOE is required to develop a pollution budget for PCBs, also known as a total maximum daily load. However, we are confident this open, transparent, consensus-based approach will work.

PCBs are difficult to clean up. They remain in our environment, including our lakes and rivers. There they persist and travel up through the food chain, potentially resulting in harm to humans and the environment.

Many people don’t know that PCBs, once considered only a “legacy pollutant,” are still being produced as a result of some manufacturing processes. PCBs can be found in the products we buy and use every day, including pigments in paints and inks in printed materials, as well as other common consumer products like motor oil and caulk. We don’t make PCBs in Spokane; we are simply passing them into the river through our watershed, stormwater and wastewater treatment systems. PCBs even arrive to our lands and waters through deposits from the atmosphere.

The water quality standard for PCBs that our river must meet is more than one billion times less than that what is allowed in consumer products.

This means that managing PCBs and preventing them from entering the environment requires a comprehensive approach. For example, we support changes to the federal rule that currently allows them to be produced.

Our task is complex, but we know we can make improvements. Our data shows that PCBs have significantly decreased in the river because of cleanup and regulatory actions.

We are seeing results. We are identifying opportunities and making quantifiable reductions. In the past year:

The city of Spokane removed 280,000 pounds of sediment and 26 grams of PCBs from the Union Basin section of its sewer system, which encompasses the industrial area south of Trent Avenue and east of Hamilton Street.

Avista has begun a $12 million project to replace all PCB-containing transformers in their service area.

Early data from Spokane County’s Regional Water Reclamation Facility shows that PCBs in the cleaned-up wastewater are so low they cannot be accurately measured.

Although the numbers seem small, these are important steps toward achieving success. We know, however, we must do more and continue to hold ourselves accountable.

A clean river, healthy community, and vibrant economy are intimately connected. These are values we all share as members of this community. People want to come and live here; and play in, eat fish from and experience our river.

Investing in this innovative approach now fosters a clean and vibrant river, environment and community. That’s a good thing.

Adriane Borgias represents the Washington Department of Ecology on the Spokane River Regional Toxics Task Force, which includes members from government, industry and environmental groups. A chemist by training, she has been an environmental professional for more than 30 years. For more information visit


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