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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Public defends work done by clean-air group

Keep your hands off Spokane’s effective clean-air cops, an animated crowd told the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority board in two hours of testimony on Thursday.

Three businessmen appearing at SCAPCA’s monthly board meeting had beefs about confusing directives from SCAPCA staff under the management of the agency’s embattled director, Eric Skelton. But the crowd of 50 people was near-unanimous in its support of Skelton and his accomplishments in cleaning up Spokane’s air.

Several spoke of a watershed moment earlier this week when Spokane was removed from the federal government’s “dirty air” list after decades of noncompliance with the Clean Air Act. They urged the board not to give in to business interests calling for SCAPCA to be dismantled and its enforcement powers turned over to the state.

“To remove Eric or to dismantle SCAPCA would be a tremendous travesty,” said Peter Williams, vice chairman of SCAPCA’s citizens’ advisory board and the associate dean of student services at Spokane Community College.

“People are here today because we are proud of Eric and would like to see SCAPCA’s work continue,” said Karen Lindholdt, a public interest environmental lawyer. She reminded the board that 300 Spokane doctors supported SCAPCA’s efforts to ban grass field burning in the county in the mid-1990s to protect public health.

“It angers me that anybody would want to weaken an agency that has done so much to improve our air,” said Linda Greene, an environmental activist and a 29-year resident of Spokane.

One hundred major employers in the Spokane area have worked with SCAPCA since 1991 on commuting strategies to reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality, said Aurora Crooks of the Spokane County Trip Reduction Program. “We want to thank Eric and his staff who have worked so well with us,” Crooks said.

Dr. Richard Rivers, a retired internist who said he treated thousands of people with lung disease in Spokane during a 30-year career, chided the board’s two county commissioners, Phil Harris and Todd Mielke, for immediately seeking a prosecutor’s review of allegations by two developers in an Aug. 18 board meeting that SCAPCA staff had forged asbestos cleanup documents. An internal review presented to the board Thursday by SCAPCA’s attorney said those allegations are false.

Mike Lee and Doug Gore of Northwest Renovators, Inc. accused SCAPCA staff of altering the documents to support the agency’s stance that asbestos was still present in the burned-out building at 8707 E. Sprague that they’d acquired early this year.

“Why was a discrepancy in documents made public before an investigation?” Rivers asked.

Similar questions by other citizens put Mielke and Harris on the defensive from the start.

“I’m one of the most stringent supporters of clean air in this county. But there’s not a person in this room that would support a falsification of records,” Harris said.

Mielke waved the two asbestos reports that Gore and Lee presented to them on Aug. 18.

“If an agency that regulates you is changing the scientific data, we should all be concerned,” he said. Mielke said the board was obligated to act when the reports were made public. He acknowledged the board didn’t seek the SCAPCA staff’s explanation when it met last month.

“We never heard from Eric,” said neighborhood activist Bonnie Mager, who attended the Aug. 18 meeting. “He had to sit there mute while others hurled accusations.”

Jan Tenold, a clean-air activist with an asthmatic daughter, said Mielke’s presentation of the allegedly altered documents on Thursday shocked her. “Do you come here and accuse people of wrongdoing without doing any research? It’s incredible,” Tenold said. Mielke said it was the first allegation of altered documents he’s encountered in his 10 months on the board.

State law allows a board to discuss employment and staff issues in private before making any allegations public, Lindholdt told the SCAPCA board. “What you did was not appropriate … don’t air this stuff in public and intimidate people,” she added.

Mielke shot back, saying some of Lindholdt’s testimony “can be perceived as threatening.”

Dr. Kim Thorburn, director of the Spokane County Regional Health District, said the SCAPCA board mishandled the forgery allegations. Thorburn said she recently fired an employee for altering documents, but undertook an internal investigation before taking disciplinary action or referring the issue to law enforcement.

“I hope you aren’t expecting testimony from staff today when you’ve already referred to this as a criminal matter,” Thorburn said.

SCAPCA staff finally got to present their side of the document forgery allegations.

“It does not appear there was any intentional or unintentional falsification at SCAPCA. … It was unfortunate this was brought up in a public form,” said SCAPCA attorney Michelle Wolkey. She said an outside review of the documents by the Spokane Police Department is welcome.

In additional testimony, Judy Belorus said her husband died recently from lung cancer that was likely caused by asbestos exposure as a young man. She asked Harris why he’d chided Thorburn, the county’s lead health officer, last month for taking Skelton’s side at the SCAPCA meeting.

“I can’t conceive of this,” Belorus said.

“I was disappointed she was there,” Harris said. “She has a big agency to run. In retrospect, I’ve changed my mind,” he added. “Kim and I have a love-hate relationship. … It was my animosity showing.”

SCAPCA is likely to stay in business, and with Skelton in charge, said demolition contractor Mike Noder. He said there are fewer problems with asbestos regulations than a decade ago, but SCAPCA still occasionally sends conflicting signals – raising costs for contractors.

“There’s an evolutionary process going on now. Companies are trying to comply,” Noder said.

Also, the impasse between Northwest Renovators and SCAPCA over the contentious asbestos cleanup appears to be resolved. An Aug. 24 survey of rubble at the site shows additional asbestos is present in the burned rubble. It will be hauled away after a contractor’s notice and a 10-day SCAPCA review.

Matt Holmquist, SCAPCA’s compliance officer, said the agency is working on a more user-friendly compliance form to streamline the process and avoid the logjams it experienced during the Northwest Renovators project.

“It seems we were locked into a disagreement. … I take some responsibility for that,” Holmquist said.

The SCAPCA board postponed its “big picture” look at SCAPCA’s future until later this fall. Spokane attorney and SCAPCA critic Stanley Schwartz is pushing for a performance review of SCAPCA, with possible reassignment of some of its functions to other agencies.

“I think this agency acts outside its reasonable authority,” Schwartz said on Thursday.

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