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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Groups say river cleanup is flawed

Lack of limits on PCBs prompt notice to EPA

Two environmental groups are threatening to sue the federal government over what they say are flaws in a long-awaited Spokane River cleanup plan.

The Sierra Club and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy on Monday filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over pollution discharge permits for the river, saying the permits failed to set limits for cancer-causing PCBs.

The Spokane River is heavily polluted with PCBs, long-lived industrial compounds once found in everything from lipstick to cable insulation. The river doesn’t have the capacity to absorb more PCBs, said Rachael Pascal Osborn, executive director for the Center for Law and Policy.

The Washington Department of Ecology has begun issuing new discharge permits to municipal sewage treatment plants and industries. The permits limit algae-fertilizing phosphorus flowing into the river, but not PCBs.

Instead, Ecology officials are convening a regional task force to brainstorm ways to reduce PCBs and other toxins in the Spokane River.

Osborn said issuing new discharge permits without preparing a specific cleanup plan for PCBs is a violation of the federal Clean Water Act. The groups filed the intent to sue notice with EPA because of its oversight role in the cleanup.

“The way to have a serious dialogue with EPA is to say, ‘We’re going to sue you …’,” Osborn said. “We look forward to their response.”

An EPA spokesman said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Jani Gilbert, an Ecology Department spokeswoman, said her agency had not seen the intent to sue notice. But she defended the cleanup plan crafted by the Ecology Department as “progressive and effective,” saying it will go a long way toward making the Spokane River healthier for people and fish.

The new permits require dischargers to monitor for PCBs. The regional task force must be set up by Nov. 30.

“PCBs are a different breed of pollutants,” said Gilbert, noting that they get into the river through various means, including stormwater runoff and airborne dust.

In a recent Ecology study, researchers found that 44 percent of the PCBs in Washington reaches of the river came from contaminated stormwater from the city of Spokane, which is working to reduce the problem.

Other municipal and industrial dischargers contribute, including Inland Empire Paper Co., a newsprint plant owned by Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review. The Little Spokane River also carries PCBs into the main stem of the river.

Information from the task force will be incorporated into later versions of the discharge permits, which are updated every five years, Gilbert said.

“In the next round … the permits will get a lot more specific about toxics,” she said.