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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Washington

Spangle, co-op owner of Rockford grain elevator sued over pollution into Spokane watershed

The nonprofit seeking to defend the Spokane River from pollution filed a pair of lawsuits in federal court last month, alleging years of permit violations by two entities discharging polluted water into the watershed.

Spokane Riverkeeper filed actions against the Town of Spangle and CHS, Inc., operators of a grain elevator between a Union Pacific rail spur and Rock Creek in southern Spokane County. Each lawsuit alleges pollution above acceptable limits and a lack of documentation as required by discharge deals inked with the state’s Department of Ecology.

Jerry White Jr., Spokane Riverkeeper, said the lawsuits were filed under a provision in the federal Clean Water Act enabling citizens to take alleged polluters to court. Legal action is just one of many options available in trying to get entities to comply with their permits, he said.

“This is not ambulance-chasing, this is simply trying to affect solutions for the public,” White said.

The elevator in Rockford has been issued three industrial storm water permits for the 10-acre site since 2014, according to Ecology records. Its permits require monitoring of copper, zinc and turbidity in runoff leaving the site, which houses grain storage elevators, as well as storage for chemicals and liquid fertilizer that is sold on-site. Turbidity is a measure of cloudiness or haziness in water that can indicate the presence of pollutants.

The Riverkeeper lawsuit alleges violations of the permissible amounts of all three measures dating back to 2016. The Ecology Department noted that only one of those measurements – turbidity – showed levels too high for their permit, known as a “benchmark exceedance,” since 2020.

The permits also require that, if an exceedance occurs, the site develop an acceptable plan to improve water quality, which hasn’t happened, the lawsuit alleges. It also alleges data for several quarters is missing.

In response to questions about the lawsuit, Tom Ryan, global director of corporate communications for Minnesota-based CHS, Inc. provided a statement.

“We are aware of the complaint and reviewing the contents of the document,” he wrote in an email. “We are committed to environmental stewardship and operating our facilities following all state and federal guidelines.”

As part of their communications with the Ecology Department, the grain elevator operators blamed staff turnover and sampling errors for the most recent permit violations.

“We looked at their permit record and their recent documented violations do not rise to the level of formal enforcement actions,” Colleen Keltz, communications manager for the department’s Water Quality program, wrote in an email.

The other lawsuit targets the water treatment facility in Spangle, just off Old State Route 195 north of the town’s main drag. Water treated at that facility, granted a municipal discharge permit by the Washington Department of Ecology since at least the early 1990s, is released back into the Spangle Creek bed on the east side of the road. Both Spangle and Rock creeks feed into Latah Creek, which is a tributary to the Spokane River.

The facility is designed to treat a maximum of 85,000 gallons of wastewater per day. That’s 400 times smaller than the 34 million gallons of wastewater treated on an average day at the Riverside Park Water Reclamation Facility in Spokane.

The Riverkeeper lawsuit alleges Spangle’s treated water exceeded allowable limits for oxygen levels, suspended solids in the water, ammonia, bacteria from feces and temperature on dozens of occasions beginning in 2017.

A town clerk declined comment this week, citing the pending litigation. The Ecology Department issued an informal warning letter to Spangle earlier this summer, notifying them of many of the same violations that are the subject of the federal lawsuit.

In response, the town’s public works director, Logan Billington, wrote to Ecology that the “main cause was from (too) much wasting at a time to not enough wasting” and that a lack of documentation was due to “switching operators.” The communication satisfied Ecology’s requirement for a response, according to agency records.

Keltz said Spangle’s situation was not unique, and that the agency prefers permittees investing in improvements rather than paying penalties.

“We would also highlight that staff turnover can really be an issue at facilities, and we are seeing this across the board in small communities,” Keltz wrote. She said the Ecology Department would then work with the government or company to get them back into compliance.

White said the goal of taking entities to court is to ensure the permits are complied with and that clean water goals are achieved. The Riverkeeper has previously sued other governments and companies under the Clean Water Act, including the City of Spokane and Darigold. Both of these legal actions resulted in efforts to reduce pollutants discharged into public waters, White said, including an additional push to Spokane’s efforts to reduce overflows during heavy rain and snowmelt into the river and the establishment of an environmental projects fund from Darigold to assist the Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Indians designated specifically for clean water projects.

“We tend to get really serious compliance in the community of permitholders based on these lawsuits,” he said.

When Riverkeeper previously sued the Town of Rockford in 2014 for similar violations, it prompted town officials, the Ecology Department and the Riverkeeper to come together and find money to fund upgrades to its system, White said.

While federal law allows citizen groups to take permit holders to court for alleged violations, the larger issue, White said, is what are called nonpoint pollution sources. They are individual landowners whose agricultural or other practices could contribute to pollution in a river, stream or other water body. Latah Creek, which the two facilities in Spangle and Rockford feed into, has been named an impaired water source since 2009, and ecologists have suggested a large part of the problem is nonpoint pollution.

“What we find is that it’s harder to do,” White said of addressing nonpoint pollution. “It’s been much harder to do.”

No court dates have been set for the latest pair of lawsuits filed by the Spokane Riverkeeper. The Spangle case has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Salvador Mendoza. The case against CHS, Inc., has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson.

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