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How much is too much?

A permit from the Department of Ecology allowing the city to discharge untreated water into the river will limit such events to one per pipe, per year.

Brook Beeler, a spokeswoman for the Ecology Department in Spokane, said the department follows the Environmental Protection Agency’s policy on combined sewer outflows, which allow the one per site, per year standard.

The local chapter of the environmentalist group Sierra Club has questioned the EPA’s policy and whether it conforms to the Clean Water Act, a federal law mandating stricter standards for public water quality enacted in 1972.

“This is a policy the EPA enacted decades ago. We think the statute is stronger than any policy,” said Rachael P. Osborn, a water law attorney and longtime environmental advocate in the region.

Osborn said the club believes the city and Ecology Department could be susceptible to a legal challenge if the permit to discharge permit includes the one outflow per year, per pipe standard, but wouldn’t say if the Sierra Club would be the one filing a lawsuit. The organization has previously taken legal action in federal court regarding the amount of permitted polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a pollutant in many household items produced up until 1979 that has been identified as a potential carcinogen, that could be discharged into the Spokane River. The case, which imperiled a $173 million wastewater treatment facility built by Spokane County, is currently on standby in U.S. District Court in Seattle after appellate courts dismissed the first round of complaints.

The Lands Council, a conservation group that has also submitted comments on the permitted allowances and is participating in the Spokane Regional Toxics Task Force monitoring pollution in the river, believes the tanks currently under construction are the most reasonable way to limit potentially harmful runoff.

“This is a huge improvement for the city, and a way that’s not going to totally bankrupt those who have to pay for it,” said Mike Petersen, executive director of the council.

Both Osborn and Petersen said after years of delays, the city has been working toward addressing the runoff issue.

 

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