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Sunday, August 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Detractors line up against state’s Spokane River plan

Draft seeks to reduce phosphorus levels by 90 percent in the next decade

The gondolas at Riverfront Park pass in front of Spokane Falls on Wednesday.  A plan to limit algae- producing phosphorus  in the Spokane River has a range of critics. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
The gondolas at Riverfront Park pass in front of Spokane Falls on Wednesday. A plan to limit algae- producing phosphorus in the Spokane River has a range of critics. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

The latest plan to limit algae-producing phosphorus in the Spokane River is drawing critics from all directions as Washington officials consider whether to move ahead with it.

One company that discharges phosphorus in its wastewater, Inland Empire Paper Co., says new pollution limits might put it out of business. Avista Utilities says it would be on the hook for pollution it doesn’t cause. City officials in Idaho say Washington regulators are overstepping their authority by setting limits for wastewater plants across the border.

Meanwhile, environmentalists argue the plan fails to set an accurate limit on phosphorus in the river and uses sleight-of-hand to allow dischargers to release more phosphorus than would have been allowed under previous proposals.

“It’s continuing the backsliding that’s been occurring for the past five years,” said Michael Chappell, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at Gonzaga University. “I view it as a sellout to industry.”

Others, though, are urging the state Department of Ecology to move forward. After years of planning, four drafts and plenty of public testimony, they say it’s time to put the plan to work.

“Further delay by any stakeholder would simply be irresponsible,” said Bruce Rawls, utilities director for Spokane County, at a public hearing Oct. 20. The county is eager to get the plan in place to move ahead on building a new sewage treatment plant.

The Ecology Department released a draft of the plan in September, the fourth since 2004. It seeks to reduce phosphorus levels by around 90 percent in the next decade to improve water clarity, raise oxygen levels and eliminate noxious algae blooms in the 24-mile reservoir behind Long Lake Dam.

It would require millions of dollars in upgrades from sewage treatment plants and industrial dischargers and would establish some of the country’s toughest standards, officials say. The agency accepted comments from the public and will review and respond to those comments, then decide whether to forward the plan to the federal Environmental Protection Agency for approval.

In testimony last month, officials with Inland Empire Paper pressed their concerns about the new standards. The paper company is a subsidiary of Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

“We view this plan in its current form as a threat to our continued existence as a viable business,” said Doug Krapas, the company’s environmental manager, according to a transcript of the Oct. 20 hearing. “Can Spokane really afford to lose another one of the few remaining cornerstones of its economy simply because of a flawed plan?”

The company, which employs more than 130 people, argues that the pollution limits are “unattainable” with any technology. Ecology officials have acknowledged that may be true now, but they note the targets won’t have to be met for another decade, possibly longer, under a new state law that allows extensions.

Krapas said the company has spent about $9 million and will spend another $10 million to reduce phosphorus, “and that’s not going to get us there.”

“We have no problem putting in the best technology we can find, but it just is not there,” he said in an interview.

Others questioned whether the threat to the paper company is quite so dire.

Chappell, of GU’s Environmental Law Clinic, noted that the phosphorus limits in the new plan are around four times higher than those in the first plan, from 2004. “I don’t think anyone wants to put Inland Empire or any organization out of business,” he said. “But there seems to be a misconception in this town. Everyone thinks they have a right to be in that river. … You only have a right to be in that river if you meet the standards.”

Ecology spokeswoman Jani Gilbert said the agency considered economic factors when developing the plan. “We wouldn’t support a plan that would put a company out of business.”

The plan allows dischargers to use “pollution trading credits.” Two tributaries – Latah Creek and the Little Spokane River – send phosphorus into the Spokane River. If dischargers pay to reduce phosphorus from another source, such as helping a Latah Creek farmer fix an eroding shoreline, they would get credits against their own discharges.

Environmentalists criticize that part of the plan, saying it uses unrealistic, unverifiable estimates about cleaning up “non-point-source” pollution and hangs too much responsibility on Avista – a utility that doesn’t directly release any phosphorus – to justify raising the limits for the treatment plants and paper company.

John Osborn, a physician who testified Oct. 20 on behalf of the Sierra Club, said the draft “still contains fatal flaws.”

“It’s a shell game,” he said, “and it won’t clean up the river.”

Avista says that too much of the cleanup burden is being shifted to the utility, and that meeting the plan’s standards would be “extremely challenging if not impossible,” said Elvin “Speed” Fitzhugh, the utility’s river manager.

Fitzhugh said the plan would make Avista responsible for almost all the pollution that doesn’t come from a pipe, from farm runoff to failed septic systems along the river and lake. He said the utility is concerned that the plan adopts strict limits for dissolved oxygen at different depths and locations in the reservoir – even the deepest parts of the lake, where water sinks and stagnates in the summer, and where oxygen levels are naturally low.

Three Idaho dischargers – the cities of Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls and the Hayden Area Regional Sewer Board – complained that they’re being asked to shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden. They also argue that Washington’s Ecology Department is overstepping its bounds by assigning limits that would be used by the EPA in assigning permits in Idaho.

“It is not for the state of Washington to make such determinations for the state of Idaho,” said a letter from Post Falls and the Hayden board to the agency.

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