For the first time in over a decade, governments and businesses that discharge wastewater into the Spokane River are operating under new regulatory permits handed down by the Washington state Department of Ecology.
But some, if not all, of the dischargers are contesting them.
The Spokane County Commission voted in mid-July to appeal the permit that regulates the county’s wastewater treatment plant. Kaiser Aluminum and the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District have appealed their permits, too. The city of Spokane and Inland Empire Paper Co. could do the same. Inland Empire Paper Co. is a subsidiary of the Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.
Discharger permits dictate what sewage treatment plants and manufacturers can release into the Spokane River. They’re the Department of Ecology’s tool for regulating and enforcing water quality standards. They include limits for pollutants such as lead, phosphorus and nitrogen, to name a few.
BiJay Adams, general manager of the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District, said new water temperature standards are among his district’s permit concerns. Kaiser Aluminum said it wants a permit that gives it certainty in the face of upcoming regulatory changes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will likely issue in the next two years.
Rob Lindsay, Spokane County’s environmental services administrator, stressed that the county is only appealing a few of the many provisions in its permit.
Two concerns stand above the rest, Lindsay said.
First, Spokane County no longer wants to help administer the regional task force charged with reducing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the Spokane River.
The Spokane River Regional Toxics Task Force is an advisory board, made up of representatives from dischargers, regulatory agencies, tribes and environmental groups.
Until now, Spokane County and other stakeholders have run the voluntary task force. Under the new permit, the county and stakeholders are forced to run it.
If participation and administration are going to be mandatory, Lindsay said the task force should be the Department of Ecology’s responsibility. He added that Spokane County still wants to participate in a community-based toxins reduction effort.
Stephanie May, the Department of Ecology’s communications director for Eastern Washington, said the county’s request is reasonable. The department will put together a new group in the future, she said.
The second fundamental point in Spokane County’s appeal is more complicated.
Lindsay said the county is disappointed in the timing of the permit.
Instead of issuing it now, he said, the Department of Ecology should have waited until the EPA has made two anticipated changes to Washington’s water quality standards.
The first change, which could be announced in the coming months, likely will establish more stringent standards for PCBs.
PCBs are carcinogens. They were once used in sidewalk caulking, fluorescent lights, hydraulic fluid and other materials. The federal government banned them in 1979.
“They were like the wonder chemical,” Spokane Riverkeeper Jerry White Jr. said. “They even put them in garden hoses because they were really durable and tough and never broke down.”
Manufacturers still inadvertently create PCBs as a byproduct. Yellow road paint can have PCBs in it, for instance.
The chemicals are an environmental problem because they break down slowly and accumulate in wildlife. Animals higher up in the food chain, including species of fish important to Inland Northwest tribes, can contain high concentrations of PCBs.
The EPA is expected to change Washington’s water quality standard for PCBs from 170 picograms per liter to 7 picograms per liter, in an effort to make the fish safe to eat. One picogram is 0.00000000000004 of an ounce.
On top of the new PCB rules, the Environmental Protection Agency by the end of September 2024 will issue new total maximum daily load standards.
Total maximum daily loads – often called TMDLs – dictate water quality standards for lakes and rivers. The Department of Ecology crafts its discharge permits for the Spokane River based on those numbers.
Lindsay said the new PCB standard and daily load limits will force Spokane County to update its permit twice in short order. It would have been easier if the Department of Ecology had waited until after the two impending decisions, he said.
Applying for permits and updating them is time consuming and expensive and ultimately costs county sewer customers, Lindsay said.
“We’re not opposed to having permits,” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense to us to have it done at this time when we’re going to be revising it very soon. It’s an inefficient process.”
Spokane County already has had to do the work to get its new permit. That work can’t be undone. Appealing the timing of the permit simply memorializes Spokane County’s disappointment in the public record.
“This is really the only opportunity that the county has to bring our concerns forward,” Lindsay said.
May said she couldn’t speak to Spokane County’s permit specifically, but she emphasized that all five Spokane River dischargers have gone without new permits since 2011.
The Department of Ecology is supposed to issue new permits every five years, but in 2016 dischargers got extensions instead.
That was largely because former President Donald Trump worked to weaken environmental protections upon taking office. The Environmental Protection Agency’s standards have fluctuated with different presidential administrations.
White said he’s glad the Department of Ecology has issued new permits now. He said some dischargers have been out of compliance with state standards.
The new permits are a “huge victory for the public, and for clean water and fish,” White said, adding that they now hold dischargers to the 170 picograms per liter standard.
“That’s progress,” he said. “We have struggled to get legitimate permits for years.”
Water quality in the Spokane River has improved dramatically over the decades, White said.
“We’ve made some excellent progress on the kind of gross pollution we used to see, where outfits were dumping sawdust and raw sewage and garbage,” he said. “Now we’re facing a new kind of cleanup effort.”
Lindsay said Spokane County will comply with its permit while it appeals.
“The county is fully committed to protecting and improving water quality in the Spokane River,” he said. “We’ve been demonstrating that for years.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to make clear Spokane County is one of multiple stakeholders that administer the Spokane River Regional Toxics Task Force.
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