The Spokane Tribe of Indians has adopted new water quality standards aimed at protecting the health of members who eat a subsistence diet of nearly two pounds of fish daily.
The tribe’s new standards will apply to the Spokane River as it runs through the 159,000-acre Spokane Indian Reservation. Eventually, the stricter standards could force those upstream to reduce the amount of cancer-causing PCBs they discharge to meet tribal standards on downstream stretches of the Spokane River.
The new standards are based on “what we used to consume and we’d like to consume without it being a hazard to our health,” said Brian Crossley, the tribe’s water and fish program manager.
But dischargers into the river say the new standards would be impossible to attain, since current testing technology can’t detect PCBs at the minute amounts the tribe is proposing. Some also question how likely tribal members are to eat two pounds of fish daily.
Crossley said fish consumption rates are based on documented historic accounts. Salmon and other fish once provided a high proportion of tribal members’ daily calories. They also drank nearly a gallon of surface water each day to rehydrate from strenuous outdoor activities and sweat lodge ceremonies.
Crossley said the new pollution standards are designed to reduce the risk of developing cancer over a lifetime of eating local fish and drinking from the river. State health advisories urge people to limit meals of Spokane River fish to reduce their exposures to PCBs.
Kevin Cooke, Spokane County’s utilities director, said he’s concerned about how the tribe’s new standard would affect the county’s new treatment plant.
“We believe the limit the Spokane Tribe has established is overly conservative,” he said. “The PCB level that the tribe has adopted is essentially zero … It may be unachievable with the current technology to consistently produce effluent with those levels.”
Other Spokane River dischargers expressed similar concerns.
“They (the tribe) can adopt a numeric limit, but we can’t test down to those limits,” said Sid Frederickson, the city of Coeur d’Alene’s wastewater superintendent.
In addition to municipal dischargers, the new standards could affect industrial dischargers, including Inland Empire Paper, which is owned by the same company that owns The Spokesman-Review and KHQ-TV.
The Spokane Tribe’s new standards would require PCB concentrations of 1.3 parts per quadrillion. The state of Washington’s PCB standard is 170 parts per quadrillion. Both numbers are extremely small. One part per quadrillion is equivalent to two sheets of typing paper in a land mass the size of Washington.
Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are industrial chemicals once widely used in lubricants for engines and machinery. Though their manufacture has been banned in the U.S. since 1979, small amounts of PCBs are still found in some products. The long-lasting chemicals are a concern because they build up in the environment, accumulating in fish and other aquatic animals. In addition to cancer, PCBs can affect brain development and mimic the hormone estrogen.
Spokane County’s new treatment plant includes $20 million worth of state-of-the-art membrane technology designed to remove pollutants to very low levels. The wastewater entering the plant has PCB concentrations in the 10,000 to 20,000 parts per quadrillion range, according to county data. Treated water leaves the plant with PCB concentrations of about 200 parts per quadrillion.
But county officials aren’t sure how accurate the results are because of limitations with detection technology at levels that low, said David Moss, the county’s water reclamation manager.
The city of Coeur d’Alene will use some of the most aggressive detection technology to monitor its wastewater as part of a new federal discharge permit. But that technology only detects PCBs at levels of 60 to 80 parts per quadrillion, Frederickson said.
The Spokane Tribe is taking a realistic view to achieving the PCB reductions, said Crossley, the water and fish program manager. “We know this isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight,” he said.
But tribal officials opted to set water quality standards based on future desired conditions, which include retaining the Spokane Tribe’s culture and traditions as a fish-eating people, Crossley said.
While results from Spokane County’s treatment plant results are promising, communities will need to address stormwater runoff and other ways that the ubiquitous PCBs get into the Spokane River, Crossley said.
The tribe also wants the federal government to set PCB limits for Idaho cities that discharge treated wastewater into the river. Recent draft discharge permits issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency require the cities to monitor for PCBs and identify ways to keep them out of the waste stream, but don’t set numeric limits.
The Washington Department of Ecology is heading up a task force charged with identifying and reducing how PCBs are getting into the river. Both Washington and Idaho dischargers are part of the task force, said Adriane Borgias, who works on water quality issues for the agency.
Officials from the Spokane Tribe were invited to participate, but have stopped attending the task force meetings, she said.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.