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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Jerry White Jr.: More action needed to keep river on road to recovery

Jerry White Jr.:

By Jerry White Jr.

The Spokane River is a living system that is woven into our regional identity. After enduring many abuses, the river is now on the long road to recovery. With the advent of the Clean Water Act in 1972, we made strides cleaning up our river. These efforts culminated by installing state of the art treatment inside Spokane River Wastewater Treatment Plants under a legally binding, cleanup plan. Thankfully, the Spokane River is once again swimmable.

Unfortunately, toxic chemicals used by industries and households prevent the Spokane River from being healthy and “fishable.” The Department of Health has consumption advisories on many types of fish in the river. Toxic chemicals with acronyms like PCBs, PBDEs, PFAS, are but a few in the river. Addressing these threats, the Spokane Riverkeeper has repeatedly said yes to community collaboration, and to regulatory accountability for the river.

As a community, we are now at a new crossroads. Learning from the past will be important in helping the river.

In 2012, Spokane Riverkeeper said yes to collaborating on the Spokane River Regional Toxics Task Force, a stakeholder process constructed to address toxic pollution. And, we repeatedly called for legally binding regulation on sources of toxic pollution. For example, we have asked for numerical pollution limits for toxics inside permits for the City of Spokane, Liberty Lake, Kaiser Aluminum, Inland Empire Paper and other dischargers. We also repeatedly called for a legal cleanup plan that would define limits on the amount of pollution allowably discharged to a water body. Doing so will provide accountability and transparency to the public.

By 2019, it became clear that the task force, absent regulatory pressure, was collecting data, but not taking concrete steps to reduce pollution in the river. The Spokane Riverkeeper watched any real potential in the task force collapse. Regrettably, we resigned, as did the Kootenai Environmental Alliance. In June 2023, the task force was formally terminated.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club and Center for Environmental Law and Policy (with intervention from the Spokane Tribe) litigated against the EPA saying that it was illegal to use the task force as a stand-in for a lawful cleanup plan. A settlement was reached under which the EPA is now developing a cleanup plan that contain legal loading-limits for pollution and pipes in the River.

Today, there are new opportunities. The state Department of Ecology is organizing a new community advisory work group to engage stakeholders in the cleanup of toxics while the EPA is drafting a legal cleanup plan for toxic pollution that will contain tight pollution limits.

For these efforts to work, the state and federal agencies must work together. Implementing tight pollution limits at the ends of pollution pipes and going after numerous other sources will be a heavy lift. Without coordination and oversight, the plan could stall under the weight of the task ahead.

The Ruckelshaus Center stated in their task force post-mortem report, “for any potential future collaboration, it will be vital to include (and sustain engagement from) Native American tribes and the environmental community and to make sure the effort stays laser-focused on reducing toxics.”

And, we need action. We know there’s a problem, we don’t need more study. We need funding and resources to power-up real implementation actions.

Finally, the community will have to beware of “end-runs” around the intentions to clean up the river. Discharge permits without numerical pollution limits, and so-called “variances’’ (exceptions) for dumping toxic pollution into the river, are but a few of the hazards that could arise.

Once again, the Spokane Riverkeeper says “Yes, and …” to collaboration and accountability through regulation.

If we are to achieve the ultimate dream of the Clean Water Act we need investments on all fronts with participation by many, accountability for all, commitment from those who regulate and are regulated, and transparency for the public.

The architects of the Clean Water Act declared the intention to end water pollution altogether by 1987. The Spokane Riverkeeper believes in this vision. While we are late, with a “yes, and” approach we can still get this done.

Jerry White Jr. is executive director of Spokane Riverkeeper.