Sixty years ago, our nation’s waterways were so polluted that fish were dying and rivers to the east were catching fire. On the Spokane River, raw sewage and toilet paper floated through our communities. Ask an elder and they’ll tell you they were forbidden from playing in the river.
In 1972, the Clean Water Act was signed into law, bringing the nation’s waterways back from the brink. Thanks to this act, a clean-up plan called a total maximum daily load created strict limits on nutrient pollution for the Spokane River. This spurred installing sophisticated filtration upgrades at wastewater treatment plants. The result was huge reductions in nutrient pollution.
Now redband trout rise, while people swim, paddle and fish. The Upper Columbia United Tribes are working to bring salmon back to our waters. Somewhere, founders of the environmentally themed Expo ’74 that attracted millions to Spokane are smiling.
The work, however, is not done. Our river is under threat from toxic pollution that builds up in the river’s fish. Unfortunately, this has led the Department of Health to issue fish consumption advisories for toxic chemicals called PCBs.
Removing PCBs and other toxics is the current challenge. Following the success of the past, we’d create a clean water plan with strict pollution limits. The plan would be grounded in a total pollution “diet,” defining on any given day of the year the total maximum daily (pollution) load that could be discharged into the river. Treatment plants would then use the best available technology, best practices and implementation timelines to achieve the diet.
Sadly, environmental regulators don’t want to stick with success. Instead, they are working with dischargers on a novel plan called a “variance” to address toxic PCB pollution. In the simplest language, the dictionary defines a variance as “a license to do some act contrary to the usual rule.”
Applied in this context, a variance amounts to a bureaucratic evasion around the intentions, the aspirations and the protective regulations of the Clean Water Act. It is a “pass to pollute” that puts the future of a toxic-free Spokane River in jeopardy.
A variance for PCBs would create a 20-year window enabling pollution dischargers to skip past meeting rigorous water pollution limits already established for your river. Under this scenario, up to five times the toxicity limit for PCBs could be legally dumped into the Spokane River. This is not a pollution “diet” plan so much as a plan to “loosen the belt” to accommodate toxic inputs.
Sadly, regulatory agencies have delayed creating a solid plan for toxic pollution since the 1990s. The platitude of insufficient technology and excessive cost is often repeated. It’s the same line dischargers used for nutrients. But guess what? When held to standards, they found a way. (For a history lesson in this classic dynamic read the chapter, “How Spokane, Once a Pollution Denier, Became a Model for the Nation,” by William Stimson in the book, “The Spokane River.”)
If successful, the variance effectively asks us to wait for another generation for the promise of clean water and edible fish to come true. It also asks those who are most vulnerable to absorb the risks of pollution. Those at highest risk are indigenous communities, immigrant communities, pregnant mothers and little children eating toxic fish from the river.
What’s worse is that there has never been a variance for toxics like PCBs approved in our nation. We must believe that polluters from Maine to California eagerly await this precedent.
And how has it come to pass that we’d consider replacing a reputation of achievement with one of avoidance? Who has asked us to bear the distinction of hollowing out the Clean Water Act? To turn our backs on the promise of Expo ’74? Enabling this ignominious march are agencies, businesses and their highly paid consultants that sit on the Spokane River Regional Toxics Task Force.
Please tell the Washington Department of Ecology that variances are bad for our river, bad for the public and bad for our nation. Ask Ecology to prepare a real plan called a total maximum daily load that will mandate a pollution diet with limits on PCB toxics being dumped into our river. Comment at: wq.ecology.commentinput.com/?id=3VtZr
The Spokane Riverkeeper will fight variances and continue to demand that regulatory agencies use the proper planning to care for our public treasures like the Spokane River rather than aiding and abetting schemes that circumvent limits and stall the cleanup of pollution.
Jerry White Jr. is executive director of Spokane Riverkeeper, which advocates for the Spokane River and its watershed.
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