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Friday, July 3, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion

Our View: State shouldn’t punish taxpayers for sewage spill

The Spokesman-Review

It’s been three weeks since debris plugged a sewer pipe near Riverside State Park, causing a backup that ultimately sent thousands of gallons of sewage into the Spokane River.

Since then, the city has taken a number of steps to reduce chances of a recurrence and has been complimented by the state Department of Ecology for its response. Still, the city is waiting to learn if the department will impose a fine over the incident. It’s likely to be another week or two before we know.

An Ecology Department spokeswoman says it’s unusual for the agency to fine a municipality, and it should be. Fines paid by a local government to the state are made up of dollars taken from taxpayers, the same people the state agency is charged with protecting. How would it advance the Department of Ecology’s mission of keeping the Spokane River clean by taking funds away from the city of Spokane (which might have spent them on sewage plant improvements) and depositing them in the state general fund?

Rare as it may be, the Ecology Department does occasionally assess penalties to municipalities in such cases, as the city of Spokane well knows. Last year the Ecology Department ordered the city to pay $6,000 for the 30,000 gallons of waste that went into the river when a digester at the sewage treatment plant collapsed the year before, killing a worker.

In 2001, the city of Harrington received a $10,000 fine for discharging fecal coli form bacteria into a creek. In that case, the Ecology Department accused the town of failing to take preventive action despite repeated warnings, not to mention the offer of a low-cost loan for a project that would have avoided the issue.

In last year’s Spokane action, though, the fine was ordered even though the spill dissipated quickly and an Ecology Department official said the city responded promptly and thoroughly.

Last month’s discharge was called to the city’s attention in an Ecology Department e-mail received at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 11, and workers had it stopped by 5:30 p.m. –7,000 gallons later. However, the spillage had been going on since at least Sunday, when a fisherman saw it, meaning the flow was nearly 53,000 gallons –

and probably much more. There is evidence that it may have been leaking for months.

This is disturbing in a city that only a few decades ago routinely put raw sewage in the river and has been under the gun ever since to deal with water quality concerns.

One of those concerns is that the sewer system exists to collect two kinds of water — that which comes out of your house, including its toilets, and that which falls out of the sky, sometimes in torrents that overwhelm the capacity of the storm drains. When gushers occur, those two types of water often combine and push their way out of the overtaxed system at various release points, resulting in raw sewage going into the river.

In the past quarter-century, and at great expense, the city curtailed those overflows by more than 85 percent, but there were still 140,000 gallons of dry weather sewage spillage last year. In this case, city officials think the offending debris had been washed into place by earlier storms. Maintaining such a system is an enormous challenge, compounded by the vagaries of weather.

But if the Ecology Department still decides that a fine is in order, as a rule, that money would go back into the general fund pool, in essence as a donation by the people of Spokane to the entire state’s upkeep. In limited circumstances, does the Ecology Department agree to “innovative penalty settlements” that return at least some of the fine to the community. But that is the exception.

It would make more sense if the exception were the norm and collected fines were returned to the community where they were collected and dedicated to local environmental protection needs. Creating a matching fund and giving the municipality in question a reasonable length of time to offer a qualified proposal would be consistent with the Ecology Department’s purpose.

It would also be fairer to the local folks.

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