The state of Washington’s cleanup plan for the Spokane River doesn’t adequately address cancer-causing PCBs, a federal judge ruled Monday.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein said the federal government erred in allowing the state Department of Ecology to substitute a regional task force on reducing toxins in the Spokane River for permit limits on the amount of polychlorinated biphenyls that can be discharged into the river through wastewater.
She ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to consult with the state and to file a work plan and timeline by mid-July for wrapping up the task force’s work and adopting future PCB discharge limits for municipalities and industries.
“This is all about getting PCBs out of the river. … Even tiny amounts are bad for human health,” said Rachael Paschal Osborn, a local water attorney, speaking on behalf of the Sierra Club and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, which challenged the state’s plan.
The two groups argued that the state’s task force lacked deadlines and enforceable pollution limits, which violated the federal Clean Water Act requirements. The Spokane Tribe of Indians joined the lawsuit amid concerns about tribal members’ exposure to chemicals from subsistence fishing.
EPA and Ecology officials said Monday they were reviewing the judge’s order and declined extensive comment.
“We’re going to work with EPA; we’re going to continue to clean up the river,” said Brook Beeler, an Ecology Department spokeswoman. “This decision means we’ll work that much harder on it.”
She said the 3-year-old task force has made strides in understanding how PCBs get into the river. It may be possible to craft a cleanup plan that protects people and fish without punitive discharge limits, she said.
The Spokane River is the state’s most polluted river for PCBs, industrial chemicals once widely used in lubricants for engines and machinery. The long-lasting chemicals build up in the environment. They get carried into the river through stormwater and wastewater, accumulating in fish and other aquatic animals.
Since 1994, health advisories have warned people to limit the number of meals of fish they eat from the Spokane River. In addition to cancer, PCBs can affect brain development and mimic the hormone estrogen.
In 2006, the Ecology Department released a draft proposal for total daily limits of PCBs discharged into the river. PCB loads would have had to drop by 95 percent to 99 percent to meet water quality standards along impaired stretches of the Spokane River.
The Ecology Department changed course, noting that many PCBs were entering the river from nonpoint sources, including dust, tributaries and stormwater. Instead of putting PCB limits into new discharge permits issued in 2010, municipalities and industries were required to participate in the regional task force brainstorming ways to keep PCBs out of the river. Dischargers also had to start monitoring for PCBs in their wastewater. Ecology officials said they would explore PCB limits in future permits.
Washington dischargers to the river include the city and county of Spokane, the city of Liberty Lake, Kaiser Aluminum and Inland Paper Co., which is owned by the parent company that publishes The Spokesman-Review.
Some dischargers already are working to reduce PCBs in their wastewater. The city of Spokane will spend $300 million over five years to reduce the amount of PCBs and other toxic compounds that get into the river.
New technology at the sewage treatment plant will filter out higher levels of PCBs, and the city also is working to address PCBs that leach out of old industrial sites, which is a significant contributor of PCBs to the river, city spokeswoman Marlene Feist said. In addition, the city is identifying and phasing out brands of road paint, de-icer and motor oil that contain PCBs, she said.
The United States banned the manufacture of PCBs in the late 1970s, but small amounts still are found in certain products that use imported materials.