Spokane is taking what’s described as another big step toward improving water quality.
New policies adopted last week require City Hall purchasing managers to give preference to PCB-free products ranging from road paint to packaging materials. The goal is to cut the amount of toxic pollution being swept into the Spokane River and other waterways from largely unregulated sources.
“Even though the manufacture of PCBs have been outlawed and banned, they’re a byproduct of certain manufacturing processes,” said Council President Ben Stuckart, who calls the carcinogenic man-made compound one of the most dangerous pollutants getting into the river. “So, products that we have still often contain PCBs.”
Although it’s unclear what kind of immediate impact the new policies will have on city purchasing, it’s receiving support from environmentalists and business leaders alike.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says PCBs continue to show up in products, particularly in pigments and dyes, and federal regulations allow for those trace levels. The problem for Spokane is that it’s under a state mandate to reduce PCB levels in the river below what federal law allows as a manufacturing byproduct.
“We have two very conflicting laws,” said Rick Eichstaedt, executive director at the Center for Justice. “The city of Spokane, Inland (Empire) Paper and others have to try meeting that lower number, while we’re still allowing PCBs in things like yellow paints, yellow pigments and other things.”
State regulators are unable to account for how more than half of the PCBs in the Spokane River got there. Stormwater runoff carrying oil-laden road grime and paint residue is considered one of the possible sources.
The Washington Legislature has approved similar purchasing policies for state agencies but Spokane is believed to be the first city to adopt them.
Under the new preference requirements, which were approved unanimously Monday night by the City Council, the city must make PCB-free purchases unless it increases the acquisition cost more than 25 percent or is technically impractical. The new policy, however, doesn’t require the city to do its own testing.
Studies show much of the yellow road paint used nationwide contains PCBs, which are then washed into waterways during rainstorms and snowmelts. Some deicers are believed to also have small amounts of PCBs in them as well.
Spokane street officials say they’ve received assurances from manufacturers that the road paint used here is PCB-free, though environmentalists warn that federal law allows companies to say that if the level is under the allowable level.
The state Department of Ecology has given Spokane about $50,000 to pay for laboratory tests on various products used regularly by the city to determine actual PCB levels. The city is targeting products that come into contact with stormwater such as road paint, deicers, vehicle soap, motor oil and road dust suppressants.
Marlene Feist, spokeswoman for the city’s Utilities Division, said results are expected by early next year.
The new policy is intended to complement the city’s ambitious integrated clean water plan, and earlier efforts that made Spokane County one of the first in the country to target dish soaps and lawn fertilizers.
“Spokane has become one of the most innovative cities in the country when it comes to clean water,” said Mike Petersen, executive director of the Lands Council. “We’ve dealt with fertilizers. We’ve dealt with phosphorus in other products like dishwasher soap. We’re now leading the country in dealing with PCBs.”