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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers asks state regulators to pause on PCB permits in Spokane River

FILE - The Spokane River curves through what is now called the University District, east of downtown Spokane, where WSU, EWU, Gonzaga University and other entities have a presence, shown June 6, 2018. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE - The Spokane River curves through what is now called the University District, east of downtown Spokane, where WSU, EWU, Gonzaga University and other entities have a presence, shown June 6, 2018. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers is asking state regulators to stop work on permits for the discharge of pollution into the Spokane River while federal authorities consider whether their standard for a cancer-causing chemical is too stringent.

A letter the congresswoman sent to the state’s Ecology Department this week is the latest step in an ongoing dispute over the allowable limit of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that local governments and industries may spill into waterways across the state. Several business interests, including Greater Spokane Inc., successfully petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to revisit the limit it imposed in 2016, just before President Donald Trump’s term began.

The limit set by the EPA, at 7 parts per quadrillion, has been championed by environmental and conservation groups, who argue that the stricter standard is based on data from groups whose diets are dominated by fish. That includes the state’s native tribes. McMorris Rodgers, industrial interests and some farmers argue an agreed-upon standard by state officials that is 25 times less restrictive than that imposed by the EPA is an attainable goal that should be returned to, to avoid the potential costs of lawsuits and uncertainty of being able to comply.

“Unfortunately, in its final days, the Obama administration overrode this diligent work and left a complex and impossible standard that cannot be measured and is not based in sound science,” McMorris Rodgers wrote in her letter, which requests that the Ecology Department “pause its process” in issuing new permits to various agencies along the river that adhere to the limit.

McMorris Rodgers cites Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee in her letter, who said in 2015 that the state should adopt its own clean water regulation that “works with our growing economy.”

Jerry White Jr. of Spokane Riverkeeper, who in his work on conservation efforts has applauded the EPA’s more stringent standard, said McMorris Rodgers’ involvement amounted to “meddling” in local rule-making and that any additional delays working toward a legal limit for the chemical in the river could prompt legal action.

“We feel like this is some sort of stall tactic that is really getting in the way of getting us to (permanent) permits,” White said.

The local chapter of the Sierra Club has also been critical of efforts to defang permits that include numerical limits for pollutants. Tom Soeldner, treasurer of the Upper Columbia River local chapter of the club and its political liaison, said the request amounted to McMorris Rodgers “playing politics with our river.”

“That is totally unacceptable to us, it goes against everything we stood for,” Soeldner said of the pitch for the state standards for discharge.

The city of Spokane has petitioned Trump’s EPA to allow the pursuit of a process known as a variance from the standard. Mayor David Condon told city lawmakers last year such a variance was needed to ensure utility rates wouldn’t balloon for residents to cover the costs of more stormwater treatment reduction. The city has already invested $340 million in runoff treatment efforts, including upgrades at the water reclamation facility northwest of town and building subterranean tanks that capture runoff before it spills into the sewer.

The Ecology Department received the letter Thursday and is working on a response, said Brook Beeler, a spokeswoman for the agency in Spokane. Waiting for federal authorities to decide whether they’ll revise the PCB standard could delay work already underway to put temporary agreements in place for the city, other local governments and private businesses, she said.

“We want to keep the momentum going,” Beeler said.

The agreements that are in place have already been extended and were last updated in 2011, and whether the EPA elects to change its rule or dischargers apply for a variance of the existing rule, that opens up the potential for at least two years of public testimony before any new regulations are on the books, Beeler said.

In August, Ecology Department Director Maia Bellon sent a letter to David Ross, assistant administrator of the EPA, urging the agency not to alter the standard that had been put in place because it would potentially undo months of permitting work that had already taking place.

“What Washington State’s communities and businesses need the most right now is predictability, certainty and flexibility to meet clean water requirements,” Bellon wrote.

One of the firms requesting the EPA adhere to the state rules was Inland Empire Paper Co., a subsidiary of the Cowles Co. which also publishes The Spokesman-Review. Pausing the permitting process wouldn’t mean the company would stop its other efforts to address other pollutants, said Doug Krapas, environmental manager for the company.

“The community as a whole, this includes the Idaho discharges, are currently spending hundreds of millions of dollars to meet stringent nutrient regulations,” Krapas said. “Simultaneously, we’re facing extreme uncertainty on the PCB issue.”

Krapas said if the EPA standard was adopted, Inland Empire would likely end its paper recycling processes to avoid discharging the chemical into the river.

White said that’s a price that might have to be paid to protect the health of the river and vulnerable populations like young children and pregnant women who depend on fish in their diets.

“If the economics of dumping pollution into rivers doesn’t pencil out anymore, then that’s the way it goes,” White said.

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