Dischargers Seek Delay in River Cleanup Plan

Spokane River dischargers want regulators to delay for at least six months a stringent cleanup plan to reduce the river's phosphorous pollution.

SPOKANE, Wash. — Spokane River dischargers want regulators to delay for at least six months a stringent cleanup plan to reduce the river's phosphorous pollution.

A meeting Wednesday with the dischargers and top state and federal water quality regulators at the Spokane International Airport was at first closed to the press and public, but was opened as a crowd gathered. The meeting was called by the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Lands Council, an environmental group.

Washington Department of Ecology officials must decide by next Wednesday whether they'll accept the dischargers' proposal for further negotiations, outlined in a draft letter to David Peeler, Ecology's water quality program manager in Olympia.

It's worthwhile to delay Ecology's river cleanup plan for a few months to discuss the dischargers' concerns, Peeler said after the meeting. "It's a positive step that they're willing to work with us. But we can't afford to let this slide on forever," he said.

The dischargers were encouraged by Wednesday's meeting, said John Spencer of CH2M Hill, a former Ecology director and consultant to the dischargers. "We've finally got a process going. None of these guys wants to contribute to the demise of the river," Spencer said.

Several of the dischargers' proposals are "flat against the law," said Rachael Paschal Osborn, a water law lawyer and Sierra Club activist. "Ecology cannot agree to this," she said.

Ecology is under federal court order to complete cleanup plans on the Spokane River and many other polluted waterways declared "impaired waters" under the federal Clean Water Act. The long-delayed Spokane River cleanup plan, called a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), was launched in 1998 and was finished late last year -- after earlier challenges to Ecology's scientific process by the same dischargers.

The dischargers include wastewater treatment plants and industries with pipes in the river. They say they'll voluntarily withdraw their recent petition to Ecology to change state law and lower dissolved oxygen standards in parts of the river if the agency agrees to:

--Delay the TMDL, which calls for a phased reduction of phosphorous discharges to meet a dissolved oxygen level protective of fish and aquatic life. It calls for a 42 percent phosporous reduction in April and May and a 62 percent reduction from June to October.

--Negotiate a plan to allocate remaining phosphorous discharges that allows Spokane County's proposed $100 million sewage treatment plant to put a new pipe in the river. Under the Clean Water Act, a new pollution source isn't allowed in an impaired river unless other dischargers cut back.

--Agree to compliance schedules far enough in the future to allow the dischargers "sufficient time for reasonable capital debt redemption" to pay for advanced effluent filtration technology to reduce phosphorous as much as 99 percent.

--Cooperate with the dischargers on a "Use Attainability Analysis," a study of whether the river can meet all of its current designated uses including fish spawning in Lake Spokane (also called Long Lake). Ecology has already told the dischargers that their own analysis seeking to lower water quality standards doesn't pass scientific muster.

--Develop a joint agreement for a phosphorous control program among "non-point" sources in the watershed, including polluted runoff from farms, lawns and golf courses. Of the 195 pounds of phosphorous that goes into the river each day, about 44 percent comes from non-point sources. It acts like fertilizer in the river, causing algae to grow, which uses up oxygen as it decomposes.

The dischargers also want Ecology to delay listing the Spokane River on its 2002-2004 list of "impaired waters" in the state -- a list the river is already on for previous years. But Thomas Eaton, of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said at Wednesday's meeting that the EPA wouldn't support a delay in the latest listing, which is already overdue.

Last year, the environmental group American Rivers labeled the Spokane River the sixth most endangered in the nation for a litany of problems, including mine waste from Idaho, PCBs from industry, decreased flow, high temperatures in summer and dissolved oxygen problems.

The dischargers also want Ecology to reissue or give administrative extensions for new discharge permits based on existing phosphorous limits rather than the more stringent limits in Ecology's new TMDL. All the discharge permits along the river have expired, except for the city of Spokane's -- which expires next month.

It would be "clearly unlawful" for Ecology to do that, said Rick Eichstaedt of the Center for Justice, a lawyer representing the Sierra Club on river issues. "They can't issue new permits until there's a TMDL," Eichstaedt said. Even if Ecology decided to issue new discharge permits, they'd have to be protective of the river and if they weren't, "we'd have to deny them," EPA's Eaton said.

The dischargers will review their proposal and submit their final letter to Ecology early next week, said Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke, who helped plan the meeting.

"By early next week, we'll know if we have an agreement or not," Mielke said.

The dischargers' offer expires next Wednesday at 5 p.m.

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