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Washington, Idaho lag behind standards in Spokane River cleanup

As with any food, if you eat fish, you want that fish to be free of contamination. That’s very difficult in our chemical-driven society. Dangerous toxins accumulate in our air, soil and most especially in our waterways.

The Spokane River is a prime example. On Washington’s list of polluted rivers, Spokane ranks as No. 1 for a toxic soup of chemicals: PCBs, PBDEs, dioxin, lead and heavy metals.

PCBs come from old sources such as the World War II-era equipment depot at what is now the Spokane Industrial Park, as well as new sources, such as Inland Empire Paper, which pipes PCBs into the river. PBDEs are embedded as flame retardants into fabrics and plastics. Dioxins are a byproduct of incineration. Lead and metals flow downstream from the Bunker Hill mining district into Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Spokane River.

The Department of Health identifies Spokane River water quality as a public health hazard, and recommends no eating of fish taken from Upriver Dam to the Idaho state line, and limited consumption downstream.

Ultimately, we want the Spokane River to be a healthy river. To accomplish that, we must clean up existing pollution and severely limit or halt the active discharge of pollutants into its waters.

The Clean Water Act requires Washington and Idaho to adopt specific numeric limits on pollutants. These limits come in two forms. First, sewage and industrial plants should be subject to strict limits on the toxics they pipe into the river. This means installing sophisticated filtration systems or recycling the effluent to keep it out of the river altogether. The technology exists to do this, and yes, it is expensive. But “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Second, there must be standards for the receiving waters – the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers and Hangman Creek – that control the total amount of pollution from all sources. These standards are based in part on how much fish people eat.

Washington and Idaho’s receiving water standards are out of date, based on unrealistically low fish consumption data. While the states are attempting to update the standards to protect fish consumers, the issue has become a political football.

In 2002, the Spokane Tribe of Indians, as a sovereign government, adopted the first human health/fish consumption water quality standards in Washington. These standards apply only to the waters of the Spokane Reservation, but are binding on upstream polluters, such as the Spokane sewage plants, whose toxic-laden effluent flows downstream to the reservation.

The Washington Department of Ecology and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are charged with implementing state and tribal standards via cleanup plans and pollution permits that impose strict limits on toxic discharges. Unfortunately, DOE and EPA have failed to implement even Washington’s outdated standards, much less the modern standards required by the Spokane Tribe.

Sierra Club and the Center for Environmental Law & Policy recently sued DOE and EPA, asking for pollution permits and a PCB cleanup plan based on human health standards. In July, Washington’s Pollution Control Hearings Board ruled that the Spokane County sewage plant is discharging PCBs into the Spokane River with the potential to violate water quality standards.

The board invalidated a county permit condition that would allow another 10 years before DOE must impose numeric limits on the new plant’s PCB discharges. The board also ruled that the polluter-driven “Spokane River Toxics Task Force” may have merit but is not a substitute for enforceable pollution limits.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit seeking a court-ordered PCB cleanup plan for the Spokane River is pending in federal court, with a decision still several months away.

As goes the Spokane River, so go the waterways of Washington and Idaho. The Spokane is the first watershed in either state to have standards that provide meaningful protection for people who eat fish. Regrettably, the agencies that are required to uphold these standards have instead chosen to ignore them.

Rachael Paschal Osborn is a senior policy adviser for the Center for Environmental Law & Policy, and coordinator of Sierra Club’s Spokane River Project.

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