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Tuesday, October 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Spokane

Limits on cancer-causing pollutants in Spokane River to be subject of EPA hearing in Seattle

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 25, 2019, 4:59 p.m.

Aerial view of the Spokane River looking east toward downtown taken in June 2018. The Environmental Protection Agency will hold a public hearing Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, to take comment on their plans to relax the cap on some pollutants that can be released into Washington’s waterways. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Aerial view of the Spokane River looking east toward downtown taken in June 2018. The Environmental Protection Agency will hold a public hearing Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, to take comment on their plans to relax the cap on some pollutants that can be released into Washington’s waterways. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A change to federal rules for the discharge of cancer-causing pollutants into Washington’s waterways will receive a public hearing in Seattle on Wednesday.

The Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to present its plan to repeal a cap on the discharge of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, into Washington’s rivers, lakes and streams at a hearing that will be recorded and transcribed but not broadcast by the agency.

The cap was initially approved in the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration.

Employer groups petitioned for a reversal of the rule, which they argued create a standard that’s impossible for industry to meet, and the EPA announced it would comply with those demands in May.

That prompted a lawsuit from Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and drew outrage from conservation and tribal groups. Critics argued the decision to reverse course on the known carcinogen’s limits was another example of President Donald Trump’s administration weakening environmental protection standards.

Jerry White Jr., Spokane’s Riverkeeper, said conservation groups will be out “in force” at the hearing, which will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. in downtown Seattle.

“I think it’s really unfortunate we didn’t get one in Spokane, given that the Spokane River is a major river in our state impacted by the PCB solution,” White said.

The EPA held an online webinar Aug. 28 to discuss the process and the reasoning behind it.

Meanwhile, the state’s Department of Ecology has changed its position from the rules it submitted for federal regulators to endorse in 2016. State officials now support the more stringent federal standard for discharge of the chemical found in many industrial products prior to a manufacturing ban imposed in 1979.

Maia Bellon, director of the department, urged congressional lawmakers on Capitol Hill last week to rein in federal regulators under Trump.

“What we are witnessing is a deregulatory campaign aimed at systematically dismantling the Clean Water Act as we know it,” Bellon said.

Chris McCabe, executive director of the Northwest Pulp & Paper Association, said politics have nothing to do with industries such as his from requesting a reprieve from the rule.

“We don’t care who the president is,” McCabe said. “We would have done it if it was still Obama.”

Northwest Pulp & Paper represents Inland Empire Paper, which is a subsidiary of the Cowles Co. The Cowles Co. also publishes The Spokesman-Review.

State officials are urging local dischargers, which include the city of Spokane, Spokane County, Kaiser Aluminum, Inland Empire Paper and the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District, to pursue what’s known as a variance from the new federal rule. That would allow those entities to develop their own plans to meet the pollutant levels the federal government adopted, which were based on fish consumption rates reported by local tribes, over a period of five years or more.

Those plans are based on what the governments and companies believed they could accomplish through existing technology, or technology they plan to employ, including new membrane treatment at the city’s wastewater facility and Inland Empire Paper’s mill in Millwood.

Both industry and conservation groups are wary of the variance process, because it hasn’t been used before as is currently proposed in Washington state. McCabe noted there has been a successful legal challenge to a similar process for nitrogen and phosphorus discharged in Montana, which might embolden groups to mount legal challenges against PCB dischargers in Washington, should the EPA approve its new rules.

“They’ve made it clear that they are adamantly opposed to variances,” McCabe said.

White would not rule out legal action, but said that he believed the Montana case might be distinct from the process underway in Washington. The variance is being sought for chemicals that belong to a class of contaminants that are not easily broken down and highly toxic, whereas the Montana case dealt with nitrogen and phosphorus, naturally occurring elements found in fertilizers and sewage.

White said his concern about the variance process is that it could open the door to even less stringent requirements than what the original state laws allowed for PCBs. He echoed Bellon’s concern, that the changes considered amounted to an attack on federal clean water laws.

“That’s a deep concern for us on the other side of this equation, that we’ll see this erosion of water quality standards and we’ll never get to a clean river,” White said.

McCabe pushed back against notions that the state rule, which is 170 picograms per liter of PCBs compared to 7 picograms per liter in the federal rule under review, amounted to a “rollback” of environmental regulations, noting that the two standards were based upon many of the same assumptions, including that the risk of cancer was one case in 1 million people.

“The number is still so incredibly small,” he said.

Following the public hearing Wednesday, the EPA will continue to take comment on the proposed rule change through Oct. 7. As of Wednesday afternoon, the agency had received about 150 comments online.

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