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

Tracking pollution’s source

Ducks navigate a bend in the Spokane River near Gonzaga University. Washington Gov. Gregoire recently approved the Urban Waters Initiative to find the source of toxic chemicals in the river and in Puget Sound. 
 (Holly Pickett / The Spokesman-Review)

The waters of the Spokane River are some of the most toxic in Washington.

Some of the trouble spills out of old mine sites in the river’s headwaters in Idaho’s Silver Valley. But scientists haven’t yet found the source of all the heavy concentrations of flame retardants and long-banned industrial compounds that show up in Spokane River fish.

That could change soon. An additional $1 million could be heading toward the Spokane River in coming years to help government experts trace the source of these chemicals. Gov. Chris Gregoire has included the request in her proposed budget.

The Washington Department of Ecology asked for the funds as part of a $2.6 million Urban Waters Initiative, which intends to focus on cleaning up the Spokane River and two areas of the Puget Sound. According to the agency’s budget request, the three areas are now in a “crisis” stage.

Recent studies have shown the Spokane River has dangerously high levels of PCBs, an industrial compound that’s been banned for 30 years but continues to somehow ooze and drip its way into the river. The research also showed sky-high levels of a similar compound, known as PBDEs. These flame-retardant chemicals are not currently banned in the state but have been linked to developmental disorders in laboratory animals.

Fish in the Spokane River had between 100 and 1,000 times higher levels of PBDEs than fish sampled in other state waterways, including Lake Washington and the Columbia River, according to a 2005 study by the Department of Ecology. The government has not yet established safety levels for the chemicals, which are widely found in such products as foam cushions and home electronics.

Should the state Legislature approve the governor’s budget request, the Department of Ecology will add three people to its staff for at least two years to sniff out the source of the chemicals and find ways of reducing the incoming pollution.

“This is how we’re going to find out where they came from – the big mystery,” said Jani Gilbert, spokeswoman in the agency’s Spokane office.

Work is already planned this spring to test for the chemicals in storm water at 14 sites throughout the Spokane area.

Extra funding would allow for additional testing upstream. If high levels of PBDEs show up in one test site, for instance, additional samples would be taken upstream in an effort to pinpoint the source. The funding would also pay for expanded inspection of businesses where toxic chemicals are used and would pay for technical assistance to other Washington communities that discharge wastewater to the river, including Liberty Lake, according to Ecology’s proposal for the Urban Waters Initiative.

Storm runoff is a major source of the toxic chemicals that continue to show up in the river, said Dale Norton, of Ecology’s environmental assessment program. It’s not known, however, whether the chemicals are attached to atmospheric dust particles and sediment that wind up on city streets or originate in an old landfill or other industrial sites.

“Obviously something’s going on there that’s unusual. I don’t know what it is,” Norton said.

Even though safety standards have not yet been set for PBDEs, the state should be applauded for tracking these chemicals and for considering the growing body of scientific evidence they pose a threat to human health, said Laurie Valeriano with the Washington Toxics Coalition.

“We need to find out where they’re coming from in order to protect our children,” Valeriano said. “These chemicals are winding up in our babies.”

Although Valeriano said it’s important to find out how toxic chemicals continue to wind up in the environment, she believes more attention should be paid to sniffing out yet-unknown dangers. Of the estimated 80,000 chemicals in use every day across the nation, less than a quarter have been tested for toxicity, according to widely cited statistics. Valeriano worries that this is setting the stage for toxic trouble for generations to come.

Concerns are now emerging over compounds used in everything from pizza boxes to carpet stain protectors and shower curtains, Valeriano said.

“There’s a serious need for reforming chemical policy. There are thousands and thousands of chemicals that have not been adequately tested for safety that wind up in the environment,” Valeriano said.