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Levels of toxin focus of fight on wastewater

Tribe cites PCB dangers of eating fish

OLYMPIA – Spokane County’s new wastewater treatment plant may be cleaning sewage so well that a key pollutant can’t be detected.

But that doesn’t allay concerns the Sierra Club and the Spokane Tribe have about the plant, and the amount of polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB, in the Spokane River.

The environmental organization is challenging the new facility’s permit to discharge the water it treats into the river. A representative of the tribe said they have concerns about the way PCB builds up in fish and shellfish, a traditional food source.

“Eating at the levels the tribe historically had would be detrimental to their health,” Brian Crossley, the tribe’s fish and water program manager, told the Pollution Control Hearings Board on Monday.

The discharge permit for the treatment plant does not set a level of PCB the facility is allowed to have in the treated water it pumps into the river. Instead, it calls for the state, county, city of Spokane and other sources of pollution along the river to develop a task force to work out ways to reduce the cancer-causing chemicals. PCB was used as a coolant in many motors and machines before it was banned in 1979. It remains in the environment and some parts of the Spokane River, including the area on and near the Spokane Reservation, which does not meet federal pollution standards.

But the area where the county’s new treatment plant is located is not among those with the highest level of PCB concentrations, state officials said, and is about 45 miles upstream from the reservation.

Richard Koch, a former Department of Ecology official who wrote the treatment plant’s permit before retiring last year, said that distance, combined with features of the river like rapids, dams and whirlpools, may help reduce any PCBs the plant might put in. But there’s no way to be sure because the data on what amount of the chemical the new facility might let through was inadequate, he said.

“It would have been an arbitrary limit,” Koch said, adding he didn’t want to issue a permit that had no meaning or couldn’t be enforced.

But under questioning from Richard Smith, representing the Sierra Club, Koch said he didn’t consider state health advisories against eating fish when deciding not to set a limit for PCBs in the permit.

Sending sewage from the Valley and some other parts of the county through the new plant is a better solution than the previous option, pumping it to the city of Spokane’s facility near Riverside State Park, which doesn’t do as good of a job cleaning the wastewater, said John Nelson, an attorney for the county.

The new plant is exceeding the most optimistic predictions for PCB, Nelson said. Tests of the treated water show the levels of the chemical are “scientifically not detectable,” he said.

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