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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane receives $6.7 million from Monsanto suit, looks to continue work cleaning river

The Spokane Wastewater Treatment Plant, formally called the Riverside Park Water Reclamation Facility, was completed in 1958 in northwest Spokane and today treats an average of 34 million gallons of waste water daily. The plant sit on the shore of the Spokane River. At far left is Northwest Boulevard running along the bluff above and across the river at right is more of Riverside State Park. Since 1958, the facility has been upgraded and expanded several times.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

The city of Spokane received $6.7 million this week as part of a settlement with the parent company of Monsanto for the decadeslong production of chemicals that have polluted the Spokane River.

U.S. District Court Judge Fernando M. Olguin, of the Central District of California, last November signed an order awarding 2,442 government entities nationwide portions of a $537.5 million settlement in a class action brought against Monsanto. The company for years sold products containing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that leached into the Spokane River and other waterways.

The products were sold under the brand name Aroclor, which was discontinued in the 1970s. But the PCBs do not break down naturally and remain in the waterway.

Spokane County and the city of Spokane Valley also are expected to receive a combined total of $6 million from the settlement.

Spokane’s funds will be directed to the city’s Wastewater Department; city officials have stated that removing PCBs from the river will be a priority.

In particular, the city is eyeing applying the funds to more than $10 million worth of work this year on the Cochran Basin stormwater system, which will treat stormwater flowing into the river from city streets and other locations in a large portion of north Spokane. Stormwater is a significant carrier of PCBs, city Public Works spokeswoman Kirstin Davis said, and the Cochran Basin is affected by pollutants from various land uses including light industrial, commercial, households, restaurants and others.

Spokane is one of the named plaintiffs in the case after initially filing a lawsuit against the agrochemical giant in November 2015. Monsanto was acquired by Bayer, the German chemical and pharmaceutical company, in 2018.

In the lawsuit, the city alleged Monsanto was responsible for the high level of PCBs found in the Spokane River, findings that already have prompted years of protracted legal arguments between the city and different presidential administrations about the acceptable level of the chemicals in water discharged into the Spokane River, primarily through stormwater.

The city is expected to get two more payments beyond the $6.7 million through the lawsuit, due to it being a named plaintiff in the suit and taking on the costs associated, Davis said. The city is not certain how much more the city will get.

Polychlorinated biphenyls are linked to cancer, as well as hormonal, immunological and other effects, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The chemicals accumulate in plants, small organisms and fish, and can increase in concentration as they are eaten by other organisms. The Washington State Department of Health posts fishing advisories for some parts of the Spokane River due to health concerns, according to environmental advocacy group Spokane Riverkeeper.

“If you’re pregnant, a small child or toddler, or if you’re eating the guts or the head or the skin, or just lots of fish, you’re vulnerable to ingesting a bunch of these PCBs,” said Jerry White Jr., executive director of Spokane Riverkeeper.

The risk of exposure depends significantly on the type of fish and area of the river, White added.

White praised Spokane’s commitment to use money from the Monsanto settlement to target stormwater runoff.

“The fact that (Public Works) in Spokane pledged on the record to address stormwater pollution with those moneys is good news to us,” he said.

Measurable progress

The city of Spokane hasn’t been waiting for money from a lawsuit to start working to clean up the river.

According to a report published by the state Department of Ecology in October 2021, Spokane’s efforts to clean up the river already have led to significant reductions of PCBs between 2014 and 2018, both on the water’s surface and down into the water column where the pollutant can settle. While PCBs entering the city’s wastewater treatment system have slightly decreased, the amount leaving the treatment plant decreased significantly.

The state Department of Ecology points to two main cleanup efforts expected to further contribute to PCB reduction in future reports.

In 2020, the EPA completed the largest time-sensitive cleanup effort in the region’s history when it removed thousands of tons of contaminants, including over 8,000 pounds of PCBs, at the former Kaiser Smelter Site in Mead. Equipment and waste from the defunct aluminum smelter had deteriorated for decades, contaminating Deadman Creek and the Spokane River.

The other greatest reduction of contaminants will come from efforts by the city of Spokane and other jurisdictions to manage and treat their sewer and stormwater systems, according to the state.

In 2021, Spokane unveiled the massive Taylor Tertiary Treatment Facility, a class of water treatment facility also formally known as Next Level of Treatment. The new system was the first major upgrade to the city’s Riverside Park Water Reclamation Facility since the 1970s, and can remove more than 99% of PCBs, among other pollutants, before they are discharged into the river.

Coeur d’Alene and the Inland Empire Paper Co. have completed similar treatment technology, according to the state Department of Ecology. Inland Empire Paper Co. is a unit of the Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

The city of Spokane also has taken significant steps to ensure that stormwater and sewage doesn’t overflow into the river before it gets treated, which had been a chronic issue for decades during heavy rain or snowmelt. The development of overflow tanks that could temporarily hold that extra water has caused overflow events to plummet, though they still occasionally happen.

The city of Spokane expects to finish work this year building the Cochran Basin stormwater system, with construction on swales, treatment areas and laying pipes slated through fall, mostly around TJ Meenach Drive.

Work on the Cochran Basin, which serves 5,000 acres between TJ Meenach Drive and northeast Spokane and is the largest collection point for stormwater runoff in the city, will be the last of a series of projects over the last four years to treat runoff.