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

Low phosphates helping, official says

Jacob Livingston Correspondent

It’s the ruling that made a typically domestic operation take on tones of a back-ally smuggler’s ring.

Since the ban on high-phosphate dishwater detergent in Spokane County went into effect last July, unknown numbers of otherwise-honest Washingtonians became state-hopping smugglers in pursuit of spot-free dishes. But at least it’s made a difference in one important place – the area water supply.

In the 11 months since the ban went into effect, the water flowing into Spokane’s wastewater treatment plant has seen an estimated 10 percent drop in phosphate levels. While that’s a noteworthy indicator that the law, which will become statewide in 2010, is having some success in its goal of reducing the amount of pollutants entering local bodies of water, there is still a lot of work to be done, said Tim Pelton, administrative superintendent at Spokane’s Riverside Park Water Reclamation Facility.

And the ban’s early success is only a small step in the right direction, he added.

“The wastewater we get into the plant is down at least 10 percent, even with people going to Idaho to buy their detergent,” Pelton said. “So it has been beneficial in reducing phosphorus levels, and that’s beneficial in a way because it helps support the biology down here in the river and keeps the pH levels down.”

However, noted Lloyd Brewer, Spokane’s environmental programs manager, “We can’t just translate that as a reduction of what’s going into the river, only what’s coming into the treatment facility. But I think people would be happy to know (the ban) has made a measurable difference.”

Phosphate-laden cleaning products – and detergents in particular – are used for their ability to get rid of built-up stains and break down grease. Removing phosphates from the water supply once they get in, on the other hand, is a lot more difficult – and much more expensive.

Once in a water body, such as the Spokane River or Washington lakes, phosphates generate blankets of oxygen-consuming algae growths, leaving fish populations and other native species choking to survive.

While those bans are part of the answer, including a potential block on high-phosphate fertilizer that could pass this year, it’s also going to take physical intervention to eliminate the remaining materials.

Many water treatment plants, which measure the phosphate levels in parts-per-billion, have a hard time catching the chemicals before they flow out into rivers and lakes unless they are equipped with state-of-the-art filtration systems. Those systems, however, are expensive – in the millions of dollars – and many are still in the experimental stages.

Spokane’s treatment plant, which treats roughly 40 million gallons of water every day, will be experimenting with several new systems, including a gravity-based clarification process and a membrane filtration system, over the next few years.

At the same time, Washington state might seek a water treatment facility phosphate-removal rate of 10 parts per billion, which Pelton said is an optimistic mark that has yet be finalized. Currently, the plant’s level of discharge is more than 50 parts per billion.

But finding any permanent solution won’t come cheap, he added.

“So it’s an ambitious limit, and that’s why we are experimenting with the new technology,” Pelton explained. “We have a lot of experimentation in the next year, and we’ll do the best we can. … We’re talking big dollars for a new system.”

Back in the homes of Spokane residents, one of the problems in getting clean dishes is that the water is very hard. As the water flows underground it collects metals and lots of other materials, which in turn makes the mineral-rich water more resistant to soap. Many residents are finding that the eco-friendly suds simply don’t get the job done like their old detergents.

As a result, legions of unsatisfied shoppers are crossing the state line to purchase traditional detergents, such as Cascade, which contain up to 9 percent phosphate, rather than the eco-friendly brands in Spokane County that contain 0.5 percent or less.

On a recent weekday afternoon, some shoppers at the Post Falls Wal-Mart warily confessed to their habit.

“Here’s my deal,” said Spokane resident Julie, who preferred to not use her last name, “I do want to be eco-friendly, and I am most of the time. However, the products I can get in Spokane just aren’t as effective.”

She said she’s tried a national brand, and it didn’t cut it. So she’s gone back to the powder Cascade detergent. “But if there was something as effective, I wouldn’t be sneaking across the border to pick it up,” Julie said. “This is a bit incongruent for how I am, but this stuff works and, darn it, it’s got phosphates in it.”

To promote the use of phosphate-free products, the Washington Lake Protection Association, which helped organize the effort to pass the ban, is spreading the word that environmentally friendly brands have made huge strides in their formulas. And with more green products hitting the shelves all the time, there is sure to be one that works, said Jacob McCann, the association’s president-elect.

“The formulas will continue to get better. They work pretty well,” he said, adding that a water softener might also do the trick to help the eco brands work better.

And if lobbying doesn’t work, McCann said sometimes he’ll resort to other forms of encouragement. “We try to talk to people in the soap aisle and give them a little push to try the phosphate-free detergents,” he said.

But the overall goal is more important than some spotty dishes, McCann said, adding that he’s encountering more people who are warming to the initiative. “In a lot of ways I think public opinion is changing. The ban is a small step. It’s a relatively inexpensive way to get something out of the system that costs a lot of money to remove,” he said. “We can have clean dishes, we can have clean lakes … and that is our end goal.”

As Spokane’s environmental program manager Brewer said, no matter the approach to the problem, everyone will have to lend a helping hand.

“We’re all in the same boat together as far as having the same wastewater treatment plants and water that runs off into bodies of water,” he said. “It’s something we have to work together on to mitigate the problems, and Spokane does seem to have some problems. These are all issues that have the potential of being beneficial for all.”

Reach correspondent Jacob Livingston by e-mail at
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