SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Five of the largest entities releasing wastewater into the Spokane River have submitted their plans to limit a cancer-causing chemical from spilling into the waterway.
Those plans all argue that a legal limit for polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, established by federal regulators would be too costly to meet in the coming years, potentially causing a need to dig more wells for fresh water in the Spokane aquifer or costing the city of Spokane's utility customers an additional billion dollars to deal with millions of gallons of treated sewage. The state's Department of Ecology now will evaluate those applications for what's known as a variance from the pollution standards, even as it challenges a Trump administration that has signaled its intention to roll back those standards for all of Washington's waterways.
For conservationists in Spokane concerned about healthy fish and safe recreation on the river, that work is a contradiction.
"It's a very confusing situation, with the state saying it's standing up for the tight water quality standard, while at the same time, creating kind of an off-ramp to ever actually meeting that," said Jerry White Jr., Spokane's Riverkeeper.
For the state agency, it's an effort to continue working toward the cleanest Spokane River possible.
"This is a tool that makes sense for us to use," said Colleen Keltz, communications manager for water quality at the Ecology Department. "We're still working toward that end of 7 parts per quadrillion. That is where we're going."
Keltz was referring to the 2016 adopted standard for PCBs approved in the last few months of the Obama administration. Following that approval, a group of industry interests petitioned the EPA to reconsider the standard, arguing it went well beyond safe levels initially approved by state regulators at 170 parts per quadrillion. But the EPA issued the more stringent standard specifically for PCBs, known to have flowed through the Spokane River for decades and regulated under federal law since 1976, based on heavy fish consumption rates in an effort to protect native tribes.
At the same time, the city of Spokane asked the EPA for advice on seeking a variance from the new rule. That would allow the city, Mayor David Condon has argued in Congress and before federal regulators, to keep its promises to city utility ratepayers on keeping charge increases tied to inflation while it paid off so-called "green bonds" to build new treatment facilities.
The federal review of the PCB standard governing pollution permits, and the state-level review of requests for a reprieve from those standards by Spokane, Liberty Lake, Spokane County, Inland Empire Paper and Kaiser Aluminum, have continued independently of each other. But the EPA's decision to ease the standards came at roughly the same time applications were due this spring for variances from the five dischargers, creating a sense of distrust in the conservation community about both state and federal regulators' seriousness in removing the chemical from the river.
"Our thinking is, look, when you get into the game of starting to revise or create exceptions and new water quality standards, the conditions in the community are such that you'll never get back down to those tight standards," White said. "Frankly, the pressure from everyone from Boeing, to King County, to Spokane, to the pulp and paper industry, as we've seen, is enormous."
The variance applications require all those releasing water into the river to make their pitch that the federal standard is unattainable, and to provide their own argument about what the standard should be and what efforts they've already taken and will continue to take to limit PCB runoff. Those applications will be considered separately, said Cheryl Niemi, the Ecology Department's water quality toxics and rulemaking lead for variances.
"What we asked the dischargers to do is to give us the best estimate of the highest attainable condition," said Niemi, referring to the standard the government or industry will look to meet over the course of the variance, which could be up to 20 years. "We'll be looking at all that information, and we will be defining what that would be."
The three governments offered specific pollutant levels they believed could be met within a five-year frame. Liberty Lake set its goal at 993 parts per quadrillion, the city of Spokane at 792 and Spokane County at 566. That's based on the level of treatment plant each government has built over the past several years, with the county opening a new treatment plant in 2011 and the city working on what it calls its next level treatment facility in Riverside State Park scheduled for completion in 2021.
Kaiser and Inland Empire Paper pledged to provide a goal as part of the application process. Inland Empire, which is a subsidiary of the Cowles Co. that also publishes The Spokesman-Review, can't yet provide an estimate because its new treatment technology will be finished this year and the company isn't sure what the pollution levels will be in its runoff, said Doug Krapas, environmental manager for Inland Empire.
"We had some pilot testing that we did, but all pilot testing does is give you a glimpse of what the reality will be," Krapas said. "We're really not going to know until it's running."
Inland Empire says in its application that all PCB contamination from its pipes is generated by its paper recycling process. The chemical is not generated in the paper milling process. And, like Liberty Lake and others, Krapas notes that federal standards allow for PCB levels in inks and dyes that are billions of times greater than the water quality standard of PCB contamination adopted by the federal government.
"We're trying to do the environmentally responsible thing, destroying and removing a high percentage of the PCBs down to what's allowable by EPA," Krapas said of the paper recycling efforts at the mill. "We would like to continue that process."
Kaiser, in its application, notes that its water from the river is used as coolant during the smelting process. One of the potential alternatives to avoid river contamination is to install a new groundwater well, because PCB concentrations are far lower, if not nonexistent, in water drawn from the aquifer. But that would require a new well capable of pumping 4,500 gallons per minute from a source that provides drinking water for the entire region.
Initial public comment on the proposed variances from the five entities is due to the Ecology Department by Tuesday, with follow-up public meetings scheduled for later this summer, Niemi said. A final rule won't be approved until fall of next year, the department says.
Still, that's a quick timetable for changes to the region's water quality standards that affect everyone, most notably tribal populations where native fish is a staple of the diet, White said. His organization, and other conservation groups in town, are urging people concerned about the river to make their voices heard. Future action could wind up in a courtroom, just as the state's attorney general sued the Trump administration over its actions on water quality standards, White said.
"We'll be educating the public, and we're certainly looking at other options as well," White said. "I think everything's being looked at right now."