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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Source of PCBs a river mystery

State Ecology workers testing storm water runoff

Industry has flourished along the banks of the Spokane River for more than a century. So, perhaps it’s no surprise that high levels of PCBs show up in rainbow trout and other fish.

Once found in everything from lipstick to cable insulation, PCBs were banned more than 30 years ago because of their link to cancer and other health problems. But the toxic compounds are still flowing into the river through storm water runoff.

Tracking the pollution’s source is part of a $980,000 Urban Waters Initiative at the Washington Department of Ecology. Over the past two years, the work has sent Ted Hamlin and Arianne Fernandez to manholes and storm drains with sampling jars. By tracing contaminants up the pipes, the Ecology staffers are trying to learn where the PCBs and other pollutants are coming from.

It’s a complicated whodunit for Hamlin and Fernandez, sometimes called “the river detectives” by their co-workers.

So far, Fernandez said, “there’s no smoking gun.”

The co-workers look for clues in water and sediment samples. This spring, they honed in on an old industrial area along Trent Avenue. The narrow strip of warehouses, railroad tracks and fabrication shops is called the Union Basin, and its storm drains contribute the highest levels of PCBs to the river.

“We’re focusing on the worst first,” said Hamlin, a storm water inspector. “These are the hottest outfalls.”

The outfalls flow into a five-mile stretch of the river between Upriver and Monroe Street dams, where high levels of PCBs have been found in fish. The compounds bond to fat and they move up the food chain – from aquatic insects to fish to people, if the fish are caught and eaten.

More formally known as polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs were used as lubricants and coolants. Their ubiquitous nature makes them hard to track, particularly when many sites have had multiple owners and uses, Hamlin said.

“It’s a very old part of the city,” he said. “If they were dumping things onto the ground in the 1950s, it was absorbed by the soil and it’s still leaching out.”

He and Fernandez do their best work during storms. When water is running down the gutters, they’re out collecting samples from manholes and drains. “We’re a wet-weather SWAT team,” said Hamlin, who renovated an old van to act as a traveling lab.

Taking a sample is a painstaking process that lasts about two hours. Each sample has to be perfect, because the lab analysis runs about $2,000 per set, Fernandez said.

In addition to PCBs, the Ecology staffers are testing for heavy metals, dioxins, furans and flame retardants, which are also harmful to aquatic life.

But in the suite of contaminants, PCBs are a particular concern. The Spokane Regional Health District first called attention to high levels of PCBs in fish from the Spokane River’s upper stretches in 1995. Advisories for limiting meals of fish from the river followed.

In December, the Spokane-based Center for Justice threatened to sue the city of Spokane over the PCBs flowing into the river through the storm water system. In a notice of intent to sue, the public-interest law firm said the PCB load from the system violated the federal Clean Water Act.

Since then, the two sides have been engaged in negotiations, said Gary Kaesemeyer, a city wastewater supervisor, who declined further comment.

Meanwhile, Fernandez enters the results from each sample into a computerized mapping system. Each new piece of data sheds a little light on the path pollutants travel to reach the river.

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