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Wednesday, October 21, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

Idaho cities say river plan poses risk to their growth

State officials meet with public, private critics

The Spokane River flows quietly past the Inland Empire Paper plant in Millwood on Monday. An official at the plant said they would have trouble meeting stricter limits on phosphorus discharges into the river. (Christopher Anderson)
The Spokane River flows quietly past the Inland Empire Paper plant in Millwood on Monday. An official at the plant said they would have trouble meeting stricter limits on phosphorus discharges into the river. (Christopher Anderson)

A plan to reduce the amount of phosphorus flowing into the Spokane River would strangle growth in Kootenai County, Idaho municipalities said Monday.

During a five-hour dispute resolution hearing, the cities said the plan favored Spokane dischargers at their expense. Sewage treatment plants in Spokane and Spokane County would be allowed to discharge phosphorus at levels of 42 parts per billion into the river from March through October, when most water quality problems occur, while Idaho dischargers would have to meet a standard of 36 parts per billion.

Fast-growing cities in Kootenai County need more flexibility, their attorneys said. If the limits aren’t rewritten, Idaho cities could face building moratoriums and economic stagnation, they said.

“The plan, as it stands, would create a severe economic hardship for North Idaho,” said Gary Allen, an attorney for the city of Post Falls and the Hayden Area Regional Sewer Board. “It effectively imposes a growth cap.”

Monday’s hearing allowed critics of the Washington Department of Ecology’s controversial river cleanup plan to have their say. Though the plan was crafted by the state of Washington, it affects Idaho dischargers because they must meet Washington’s water quality standards for the Spokane River at the state border.

Avista Corp., Inland Empire Paper and the Sierra Club also weighed in with concerns about the plan, which would take effect over 10 years.

A five-member panel of Ecology staffers, who weren’t directly involved in crafting the plan, listened to the arguments. The panel will make a recommendation to Ecology director Ted Sturdevant, who will decide whether the plan needs changes.

The cleanup plan is designed to increase dissolved oxygen for fish and other aquatic creatures in the Spokane River. Phosphorus robs the river of oxygen by promoting algae growth. The problem is most pronounced in the 24-mile reservoir behind Long Lake Dam, but other areas of the river also suffer from low oxygen.

At the hearing, Ecology staff defended the plan.

“This isn’t perfect, but we think it’s pretty good,” said Kelly Susewind, water quality program manager. “Every day that we try to make it perfect, we lose the ability to make it good enough and to start making improvements to the river.”

Officials from Inland Empire Paper said their newsprint plant in Millwood will have trouble meeting discharge limits in the plan. The plant is a subsidiary of Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

Phosphorus in Inland Empire Paper’s discharge water comes from wood chips. Chemically, it’s different than the phosphorus in municipal waste, and harder to remove, said Doug Krapas, the plant’s environmental manager. The company has spent $9 million on pilot testing, and plans to spend another $10 million in treatment upgrades. But Krapas said the plant will still put out twice as much phosphorus as the permit allows.

Ecology staff has proposed “pollution trading credits” for dischargers that can’t meet the limits with technology. The credits allow dischargers to pay for phosphorus removal from other sources, such as leaking septic tanks or fertilizer runoff from fields. But the credits are easier for an entity like Spokane County to pursue than a private company, Krapas said.

Idaho dischargers said that a pollution trading credit system doesn’t exist in their state.

The Sierra Club, meanwhile, said that the plan shouldn’t allow Spokane County’s new, $170 million treatment plant to discharge treated wastewater into the Spokane River. The river doesn’t have the capacity to absorb another waste stream, said Rachael Paschal Osborn, the Sierra Club’s attorney. “It’s plain wrong to be putting more pollution into the river,” she said.

Osborn also said that Ecology officials need to quantify Avista’s role in improving dissolved oxygen in Long Lake. Since Avista owns Long Lake Dam, which contributes to the Spokane River’s water quality problems, the utility has agreed to control aquatic weeds in the lake and take other phosphorus-reduction measures.

Spokane County officials didn’t speak at the meeting, but sent a letter supporting the plan.

It requires every discharger to heavily invest in state of the art treatment, county officials said.

“But, investing in cleaning up the Spokane River is one of the best investments our region can make now because it will pay dividends long into the future,” the letter said.

The Kootenai Environmental Alliance encouraged the Ecology Department to hold all river dischargers to stringent standards.

“It is a privilege to discharge to the Spokane River, not a right, and if these facilities are unable to meet their new permit limits, they need to cease discharging to the river,” alliance members wrote in a letter.

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