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Monday, November 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Tribes, conservation groups cry foul after Trump administration signals rollback of Spokane River quality standards

The Spokane River west of downtown Spokane is seen curving around High Bridge Park in this June 2018 photo. The Environmental Protection Agency signaled this week it will soon ask for input in changing pollution limits into the state’s waterways, including the Spokane River, which conservation groups warn could effect efforts to clean the river of cancer-causing chemicals. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane River west of downtown Spokane is seen curving around High Bridge Park in this June 2018 photo. The Environmental Protection Agency signaled this week it will soon ask for input in changing pollution limits into the state’s waterways, including the Spokane River, which conservation groups warn could effect efforts to clean the river of cancer-causing chemicals. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

State regulators, local Native American tribes and environmental groups are crying foul after an apparent attempt this week by the Trump administration to begin talks of easing new regulations on carcinogenic chemicals in Washington’s waterways.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it posted a notice in error soliciting public comment on plans to revisit the regulations, which were approved in 2016 based on fish consumption rates in certain vulnerable populations, including tribes.

The Washington Department of Ecology, charged with issuing discharge permits for the Spokane River and all waterways in the state, said it was surprised by the initial opening of public comment, and that federal regulators hadn’t reached out to them before announcing they’d revisit the standards.

“Being that this was apparently put up in error, we hope that they will engage with us if they take any further action,” said Ty Keltner, a communication manager at the Ecology Department.

A request for comment from a regional spokesman for the EPA on the source of the error and whether it indicated the agency was considering opening the issue to public input soon was not returned Friday. A notice posted Thursday by the agency simply said that “authorization to publish a document … was given erroneously.”

But to Jerry White Jr., the Spokane Riverkeeper, the notice tipped the administration’s hand, showing that a likely fight over pollution standards is looming in the future.

“I actually think it’s a really strong signal that we will see this opened up,” White said. Previously, the EPA had only said that it was considering revisiting the standard. “That’s kind of what I’m getting from the folks I’m talking to. It’s an unfortunate signal that the EPA will in fact open this to rule-making to rescind the standard.”

A coalition of businesses and the Spokane chamber of commerce, Greater Spokane Inc., had petitioned the EPA to revisit a rule that was approved in the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration that set standards on discharges of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, at a level that they said was too costly to implement and went beyond agreed-upon measures approved by state regulators.

The businesses included the Northwest Pulp & Paper Association, whose members include Millwood-based Inland Empire Paper Co. That firm is a subsidiary of the Cowles Co., which also publishes The Spokesman-Review.

PCBs have been shown to cause cancer in lab tests, and are of particular concern to people who eat large quantities of fish. The toxin has been shown to cause neurological defects and developmental problems in infants and the fetuses of pregnant women eating tainted fish.

“These standards are more protective of Indian people and the treaty-reserved resources we depend on for our economic and cultural survival,” said Lorraine Loomis, chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, in a news release. The group represents several tribes in Western Washington and was the first to discover EPA’s announcement earlier this week during routine monitoring of water quality issues, a spokesman said.

Though he wasn’t a signatory on the petition from businesses seeking a reprieve in February 2017, Mayor David Condon has spoken to federal lawmakers and top EPA officials about the city seeking a variance from the new rule, arguing Spokane and its taxpayers have already invested millions in river cleanup based on the previous standard that was deemed adequate by state officials. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers also asked that a provision be written into a federal spending bill last summer that would prevent EPA from imposing the stricter standard, arguing it was unattainable.

But the Ecology Department warned this week that reopening the discussion about PCB limits, as well as other contaminants, would potentially expose the federal government to lengthy legal action that would tie up watershed cleanup efforts for years.

“For more than 2 1/2 years, we’ve worked with communities, tribes, local governments, and businesses to implement the clean water rule,” Ecology Director Maia Bellon said in a news release this week. “We fully expect any actions EPA takes now to reverse course will result in costly litigation that benefits no one.”

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