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Wednesday, May 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Fish hatchery suspected as a source of PCBs in the Spokane River

Rainbow trout swim in the Spokane Hatchery as a handful of food lands to the left of them on Wednesday. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Rainbow trout swim in the Spokane Hatchery as a handful of food lands to the left of them on Wednesday. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A state-owned hatchery on the Little Spokane River uses fish food containing cancer-causing PCBs, and its wastewater should be monitored as a pollution source, river advocates say.

The Spokane Hatchery is one of the oldest and the largest in the state, producing 2.2 million fish annually for stocking lakes and reservoirs in Eastern Washington. PCBs were first identified in the hatchery’s commercial fish food in 2006.

“The amounts of PCBs we’re talking about are very small,” said Jerry White Jr., the Spokane Riverkeeper, adding he doesn’t want to create a scare about eating hatchery-raised fish.

But at a time when cities and industries across the region are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce PCBs flowing into the Spokane River to comply with state and federal mandates, the state should require testing at its own hatchery, White said.

“We’re under a microscope for eliminating PCBs in the waters of the Spokane River,” he said. “We need real clear monitoring so we can begin to understand what’s going on.”

Last week, the Spokane Riverkeeper and other groups appealed the renewal of the hatchery’s discharge permit to the state Pollution Controls Hearing Board. They want the Department of Ecology to require hatchery officials to test for PCBs and to take part in a regional taskforce aimed at reducing toxic compounds in the Spokane River.

Joining the Spokane Riverkeeper in the appeal are several other environmental groups and two Spokane River dischargers: the city of Coeur d’Alene and Inland Empire Paper, a subsidiary of Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

Regulations to protect the Spokane River prohibit discharges of PCBs measured in parts per quadrillion.

“We want to make sure that all dischargers follow the same rules,” White said.

Officials from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which operates the Spokane Hatchery, will be meeting with the Department of Ecology to discuss the appeal, said Chris Donley, a regional fisheries program manager.

“Our intent is to do what is best for the environment,” he said. “We buy the best quality food we can, with the lowest concentrations of PCBs we can get.”

But you can’t find fish food without some level of PCBs, Donley said: “They’re everywhere on the planet.”

PCBs, also known as polychlorinated biphenyls, are long-lasting industrial compounds that accumulate in body fat. They’re found in commercial fish food that contains fish oils. Health officials say PCBs pose a danger even in tiny amounts. In addition to causing cancer, PCBs can affect brain development and mimic the hormone estrogen.

Researchers began calling attention to PCBs in farmed salmon more than a decade ago. That led to the 2006 study of 10 Washington state hatcheries, including the Spokane Hatchery. PCBs were detected in both the hatchery’s fish food and in trout raised at the hatchery.

“Hatchery fish are eating higher on the food chain than wild fish,” so they consume more PCBs through their food, said Holly Davies, the Department of Ecology’s toxics policy coordinator.

Last year, Washington enacted a law requiring state agencies to purchase PCB-free products or the best alternative. The Department of Ecology has been testing commerical fish foods to find the brands with the lowest levels, Davies said.

By March 2017, Spokane Hatchery officials must demonstrate they’re using fish food with the lowest PCB levels they can afford. Managers also must develop a plan to keep fish food out of the hatchery’s wastewater discharge.

This summer, the Department of Ecology will study sources of PCBs at the Spokane Hatchery. Hatchery-reared trout planted in the Long Lake reservoir will also be tested for PCBs.

White, the Spokane Riverkeeper, said he developed his love of rivers though decades of fishing.

Hatchery-raised trout “is a good food, and we don’t want to discourage anyone from eating fish,” he said. But, “we do want to see a high bar for anybody that would have a potential discharge of PCBs into the river.”

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