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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Reversing course, again: Biden’s EPA plans to toss Trump-era ruling on pollution in Spokane River

UPDATED: Sat., April 9, 2022

The Environmental Protection Agency has once again signaled its plans to revise limits on potential cancer-causing chemicals in the Spokane River, this time satisfying the concerns of conservation groups while throwing into uncertainty a state process underway that permits the flow of wastewater into the river.

The plan announced late last month by the Biden administration seeks to reverse a Trump-era decision to lessen restrictions on polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a legacy pollutant that continues to leech into the river through paints, dyes and other industrial products despite being banned in the 1970s. Under former President Donald Trump, the EPA acquiesced to a request by industry groups to adopt a standard of 170 picograms per liter of water in Washington’s waterways, including the Spokane River. Biden’s EPA has launched public rule-making that would revert to a more stringent 7 picograms per liter standard.

Jerry White Jr., Spokane Riverkeeper, called the potential reversal a win for clean water in the Spokane River and was confident the rule would stick this time. The EPA announced on April 1 a 60-day comment period to go back to the 7 picograms per liter standard, which is based on concerns about those who ingest PCBs from fish they eat harvested from the river.

“What the EPA is doing now is simply revisiting the original, good science, and putting that science back into play to come up with a criteria that’s fully protective,” White said.

EPA’s review of the original rule is described by the agency as voluntary. It’s in the midst of at least two lawsuits filed by, among others, the state of Washington alleging its reversal under Trump was a violation of the Clean Water Act. The federal law passed 50 years ago this fall gives the federal government authority to address pollution in public water systems.

The decision to reopen the rule-making doesn’t resolve those lawsuits, Bill Dunbar, a regional spokesman for the EPA, said in an email this week. They’ve been placed on hold while the agency has a nine-month window to come up with a PCB standard.

The Trump reversal was made after concerns were raised by trade groups, including the Pacific Northwest Pulp & Paper Association, which includes among its members the Inland Empire Paper Co., one of the entities currently seeking a renewal of its permit to discharge wastewater into the Spokane River. Inland Empire Paper Co. is a subsidiary of the Cowles Co., which also publishes The Spokesman-Review.

Chris McCabe, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Pulp & Paper Association, said the organization is reviewing the new rule and working with an engineering firm to estimate the costs it might take for mills to comply. They continue to have concerns that the level of contamination required by the EPA exceeds the ability to measure by any available test.

“It’s a game of ping pong right now,” he said, referring to EPA’s second reversal of course in about three years.

In the middle of that debate, and as the agency also looks to establish a different, but related, standard called a total maximum daily load for the contaminant in the Spokane River, the Ecology Department is pressing forward with its plans to issue new permits for Inland Empire Paper and the other four permitted dischargers into the river: Spokane County, the Liberty Lake Water & Sewer District, Kaiser Aluminum and the city of Spokane.

Ecology plans to issue permits based on the 170 picograms per liter standard that EPA is now seeking to change. Because that standard has not officially changed, and the Ecology Department sees a need to address other pollutants that are also controlled by the permits, the state agency is pushing forward with plans to issue permits this spring, said Stephanie May, a spokeswoman for Ecology’s Eastern Region.

Should the underlying standard change for PCBs, May said, “there are multiple options for how and when to update the permits with the new limit for PCBs.”

The city had already applied for what’s known as a “variance” from the rule, to allow them to develop and build new features at the Riverside State Water Reclamation Facility west of town. Such a variance would give the city, and other entities introducing PCBs to the river that applied for and received one, more time to comply with a limit while also requiring them to demonstrate progress toward that end.

The variance process was shut down by Ecology in June 2020 as legal concerns mounted. That leaves the city of Spokane in an uncertain spot should the PCB limit change once again, said Marlene Feist, public works director for the city.

“We’re trying to understand all that,” Feist said. “What happens when it goes back to 7 again? When the permit gets finalized, what number’s in that final permit?”

Upgrades at the city’s water treatment plant are online and have already shown results in reducing phosphorous and other contaminants from treated sewer and stormwater runoff, though a full PCB test has yet to be conducted, Feist said.

The EPA is accepting comment on the more stringent PCB standard through May 31. Comments may be submitted online through the Federal Register.

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