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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Trump administration will review pollution rules affecting Spokane River

The Spokane River near Sullivan Road and the Centennial Trial. (Steve  Thompson / The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane River near Sullivan Road and the Centennial Trial. (Steve Thompson / The Spokesman-Review)

Rules affecting the amount of cancer-causing chemicals flowing into the Spokane River will be reviewed by the Trump administration.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced earlier this month that it would reconsider water quality rules adopted for Washington’s lakes and rivers in late 2016.

The agency review is a major development, according to parties on both sides of the issue.

A coalition of business and industry groups petitioned for the review last year, urging EPA to overturn federal limits that are stricter than previous rules developed by the state. The rules affect permits for discharging treated wastewater into water bodies.

“We’re committed to cleaning up the Spokane River and protecting our aquifer,” said Todd Mielke, chief executive officer for Greater Spokane Incorporated, one of the petitioners. “The community has set goals and treatment standards that are higher than anywhere else in the nation.”

The city of Spokane has embarked on a $340 million effort to reduce toxins and phosphorus in the river. That work includes construction of massive underground stormwater tanks to keep untreated sewage from reaching the river, as well as new technology at the city’s wastewater treatment plant to remove polychlorinated biphenyls – or PCBs – and other chemicals.

But extremely low thresholds for PCBs and some other toxins in the federal rules are problematic, according to the petitioners. The amounts of PCBs that can be discharged into lakes and rivers are so tiny that they can’t be detected with current technology, the petition said.

The Spokane Riverkeeper, however, supports keeping the higher federal standards for PCBs.

“For us, it’s extraordinarily frustrating,” said Jerry White Jr., the riverkeeper. “The levels of PCBs in the river are not safe. … It really feels like the Trump administration’s regulatory rollback is being felt all the way down to our river basin.”

The stricter federal limits protect vulnerable populations – Native Americans who eat a lot of fish, young children and pregnant women, White said. While the Spokane Riverkeeper program is willing to work with wastewater dischargers and regulators on how to achieve the goal, it doesn’t support relaxing the standard, he said.

Meeting the limits “may take years of ingenuity and creativity,” White said, but “let’s not lower the bar.”

Polychlorinated biphenyls have been linked to cancer, developmental delays and other health issues in people and wildlife. They were largely phased out in the 1970s, but PCBs are still found in some common products, such as paints, used motor oil, hatchery fish food and soaps. The compounds have a long life and persist in the environment and get into waterways in numerous ways, the petition said.

If the federal rules stand, “most of the state of Washington would likely be listed as impaired for failing to meet the PCB criteria,” according to the petition. All of Puget Sound, Hood Canal and the Strait of Juan de Fuca would be out of compliance with the pollution thresholds, the petition said.

The petition was submitted by a coalition of groups, which besides GSI included the Association of Washington Business, the Washington Farm Bureau and the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association, whose membership includes the Inland Empire Paper Co. The latter is a Millwood firm and subsidiary of Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

The city of Spokane wasn’t a petitioner, but has serious concerns about how it will meet the stricter federal standards, said Marlene Feist, a city spokeswoman. The city purchased $200 million in revenue bonds to help pay for the cleanup.

“Our community truly has made a significant investment in the river,” she said.

The Washington Department of Ecology developed the state water quality rules that were challenged by environmental groups, including the Spokane Riverkeeper, and ultimately led to the tougher federal standards. At this point, the department wants to move forward with the federal rules, said Maia Bellon, the Ecology Department director.

“The standards proposed two years ago by Washington state were protective and our preferred approach, but we chose not to challenge EPA’s stricter standards,” she wrote in a letter to David Ross, EPA’s assistant administrator. “… I oppose changing course now, more than a year and a half after the current standards took effect.”

What the state’s businesses and communities need most right now is “predictability, certainty and flexibility” to meet clean water requirements, Bellon wrote. “We are well on the path of providing just that.”

The Ecology Department has been working closely with Spokane River dischargers, said Brook Beeler, an agency spokeswoman. Some of the permits have been extended while the agency works on developing benchmarks for dischargers to gradually move toward the lower limits, she said.

“The first place it will be tested is the Spokane River basin,” Beeler said.

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