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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Ecology officials offer answers about controversial ‘variance’ for pollutants in Spokane River

A view of the Spokane River flowing through downtown in June 2018. State regulators are moving forward with plans to give the city and other entities discharging wastewater into the river more time to comply with federal pollutant limits. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
A view of the Spokane River flowing through downtown in June 2018. State regulators are moving forward with plans to give the city and other entities discharging wastewater into the river more time to comply with federal pollutant limits. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

State environmental regulators fielded questions, some pointed, this week from both industry and conservationist groups about plans to give local governments and businesses more time to meet a new federal pollutant standard in the Spokane River.

The Washington Ecology Department presented their initial impressions at a public workshop Thursday in Spokane Valley of applications from five entities releasing wastewater into the river. Those applicants – the city of Spokane, Spokane County, the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District, Inland Empire Paper and Kaiser Aluminum – are asking for a reprieve from a new federal limit on cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that they argue is impossible to meet with current technology.

The department intends to release a draft rule in the spring that would likely raise that limit from 7 parts per quadrillion to a limit that the entities demonstrate they can meet with technology either already built or scheduled to come online in the next few years. Environmental groups, including the Spokane Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club, questioned the necessity of the reprieve, known in technical terms as “a variance,” and worry whether the process will allow for pollutant limits on the river that will pose potential health risks for those with diets heavily dependent on fish caught from the waterway, including local tribes.

If approved, the variances would be the first issued on Washington’s waterways, which also concerns conservation groups that such a decision will open the door for departures from other environmental rules and timelines in the state.

PCBs attach to organic materials in waterways, including fish, increasing the cancer risk for anyone eating their catch. The environmental limit on PCBs, established in the final days of the Obama administration, is based upon a fish consumption rate backed by the tribes and conservation groups. A less stringent standard, based on lower fish consumption rates, had been endorsed by the Ecology Department in consultation with those groups and industries before the EPA approved the stricter standard at the end of 2016.

State officials were quick Thursday to say that the variance process is not intended to change the underlying standard of 7 parts per quadrillion. But those goalposts may yet move, as the federal Environmental Protection Agency is considering lifting the limit, despite opposition from the Ecology Department and a lawsuit from Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

Jerry White Jr., the Spokane Riverkeeper, said he continued to have concerns after Thursday’s workshop that state officials were defending the federal limit while at the same time making it easier for governments and companies to never have to meet it.

“We’re beginning to question the degree to which we can trust what Ecology is asserting, and what they’re saying in every forum,” White said.

Four of the five applicants have new technologies in place that were designed to reduce dissolved oxygen from their wastewater. Kaiser Aluminum is in the process of reducing the amount of water it returns to the river, and if the variance requested is approved officials would re-evaluate treatment plans once that process is complete.

Spokane County’s Water Reclamation Plant began operating in 2011 and uses a membrane filtration system to remove pollutants, including phosphorous and PCBs. New membrane systems being built by the city of Spokane, the Liberty Lake water district and Inland Empire Paper also have shown success in reducing PCBs.

The paper mill, a subsidiary of the Cowles Co. that also publishes The Spokesman-Review, will see its new membrane technology come online at the end of this year. The new technology will allow the company to continue recycling newsprint in the creation of new paper, said Doug Krapas, environmental manager for Inland Empire Paper.

“We don’t want to get out of the recycling business,” he said after the meeting.

Spokane’s new water treatment system, under construction at the Riverside Park Water Reclamation Facility, will not be fully operational until 2021. But Ecology will release its final limits on pollutants in the fall of next year, prompting a question from the audience about how that limit could be set before data was available on the treatment’s effectiveness.

“We’re still really struggling with that,” said Cheyl Niemi, a toxics specialist with the Ecology Department who presented at the workshop. There will be periodic opportunities to alter the limits during the five-year issuance of a permit to release wastewater into the river, Niemi said, and that limit could only be altered to be more stringent, not relaxed.

Niemi also addressed whether the Ecology Department would consider options requiring those discharging wastewater to find somewhere else to put it, rather than back into the Spokane River. For the city of Spokane, such an option could run afoul of river flow requirements in the summer months.

Also, Niemi said, treatment of the wastewater from the city would require lagoons measuring roughly 57 square miles, an area roughly the same size as city limits (69 square miles). Such approaches also run the risk of just moving the PCBs, rather than treating to eliminate them, she said.

“That’s not an optimal solution, just to move them from one medium to another,” she said.

But White said Ecology’s quickness to dismiss options to remove pollutants from the river altogether ran counter to the purpose of the federal Clean Water Act, first passed in 1972, which was to stop discharges altogether.

“I think this is a real rush to the rule, to a draft rule,” White said. “We’re going to be asking for more time.”

State officials said Thursday’s presentation was just the first of many planned public events prior to a rule’s adoption. Public comments will also be accepted after the draft rules are published in the spring.

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