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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County wastewater plant needs new PCB permit

OLYMPIA – Spokane County’s new wastewater treatment plant will need a new permit that measures the amount of a cancer-causing chemical it’s putting into the Spokane River, a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled.

Judge Eric Price agreed with a state Pollution Control Hearings Board that the wastewater facility is adding polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, to the river in the water it discharges after treatment. He also agreed that PCB reduction provisions of the current discharge permit are so inadequate they must be replaced with numeric limits.

The Sierra Club, the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, and the Spokane Tribe have challenged the discharge permit the state Ecology Department issued Spokane County for the $173 million treatment plant, arguing the river already has such dangerous levels of PCBs that any more is too much.

The county has argued that much of the contamination is from areas upstream, and that the new treatment center, which reduces PCBs in the water it treats to levels that are hard to detect properly, is improving the river.

“The court decision is an important step to clean up PCBs polluting the Spokane River,” Rachel Paschal Osborn, with the Sierra Club and the law center, said in a news release.

The state and county could appeal Price’s decision to the state Court of Appeals, and ultimately the state Supreme Court. State and county officials said the decision is so new they haven’t decided their next step.

Kevin Cooke, county utilities director, said tests of the water from the facility show PCB levels at less than one part per trillion, a level so low it is difficult to measure. The county is committed to reducing PCBs in the river but “it’s going to be a very challenging limit to set up,” Cooke said.

The Ecology Department is disappointed with the ruling and considering its options, said Brook Beeler, a spokeswoman for the department.

Attorneys for the environmental groups will draft the order and submit it to Price in the coming weeks. The state and county will have 30 days to decide whether they’ll appeal after that. In the meantime, a challenge to the state’s plans for handling PCBs in the Spokane River is before a federal judge in Seattle.

PCBs were once a common chemical used in petroleum products, coolants, cleaners and degreasers and have been found to cause cancer. Their use is severely restricted by federal law but they still show up in small amounts in certain products, including the yellow paint used to stripe roads. They sometimes are washed into the river by rain, where they collect in plants and animals.

That creates a higher risk of cancer for groups like the Spokane Tribe, who get a high percentage of their diet from the river.

Rather than discharge treated water into the river, the opponents want the county to reuse it for industrial purposes and put it on land in Saltese Flats, where it could create wetlands and wildlife habitat.

The treatment facility opened in 2011, but in 2013, the hearings board ruled the discharge permit was flawed and ordered the Ecology Department to revise it. The board did not order the treatment center to close until it had a new permit, so it continues to operate while the appeals continue.