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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Officials wary of pollution standards

The state Department of Ecology released a plan this week on how to reduce phosphorus pollution in the Spokane River, but local authorities said it’s unrealistic.

The plan also could affect construction of a new sewage plant that Spokane County and Spokane Valley leaders are working to build before they run out of sewer capacity as early as 2011.

Spokane County officials have said that a new wastewater plant should be allowed to have 20 years to meet phosphorus pollution standards. But the plan released this week indicated that it would have to meet the requirements when it opens.

County and Spokane leaders are willing to invest in technologies that are affordable but said the goals outlined in the plan are out of reach.

“I’m still a long way from warm and fuzzy,” Spokane’s Deputy Mayor Jack Lynch said Wednesday.

The state’s goal is to cut daily phosphorous discharges from a current 195 pounds to about 5 pounds. The pollutants are piped directly to the river from sewage plants and industries.

Phosphorus promotes algae growth, which diminishes dissolved oxygen that’s vital to fish survival.

To create the 20-year plan, the department has met monthly for the past year with environmental groups and municipalities and companies that dump wastewater into the Spokane River.

Dave Peeler, the Ecology Department’s water quality program manager, said even though the goals are listed in the report, the department understands that current technology may not allow wastewater dischargers to reach them. That’s why permit guidelines will be set based on technology available and violations based on actions taken to reduce pollution, he said.

“We’re not going to penalize them for not reaching the goal,” Peeler said. “These are targets. These are not compliance levels.”

In the summer of 2003 wastewater from a plant that treats sewage from Spokane and Spokane County accounted for 151 pounds of phosphorus a day, according to the plan. Lynch said the plant is committed to reducing phosphorus to 36 pounds a day at a cost of $125 million in the next six years. But decreasing more than that could cost significantly more and reaching the Ecology Department’s goal of three pounds a day may not be scientifically possible.

“We’ll do whatever is affordable and attainable,” Lynch said. “We’re spending a lot of money. You get to the point where you really have to look at the cost-benefit.”

The plan also sets goals for Liberty Lake Sewer District, Kaiser Aluminum and Inland Empire Paper. Inland Empire Paper is owned by the Cowles Company, which owns The Spokesman-Review.

Rick Eichstaedt, an attorney representing the Sierra Club, said technology may exist that will allow dischargers to eventually reach the goals.

“What we need to do is come up with a creative solution to achieve that target,” Eichstaedt said. “It gets us to the goal of reaching that number over a reasonable amount of time.”

Attempts to reduce phosphorous levels began after the Environmental Protection Agency challenged the state’s plan to support a new $100 million sewage treatment plant in Spokane Valley. The federal agency said the river’s phosphorous level was already at its maximum.

County Commissioner Todd Mielke said the county will continue to argue that a new plant should have more time to meet the standards.

Ecology officials plan to rework the document in time for a meeting next month. Peeler said that while Ecology has the authority to set final guidelines, the department believes it can reach a consensus. Mielke agrees.

“I still believe there’s every opportunity, every ability to be able to find a solution to this,” Mielke said.