As of this week, the Spokane region has a formal organization to lead efforts to find and reduce toxic compounds in the Spokane River. Thirteen governmental agencies, private industries and environmental organizations have signed a memorandum of agreement that forms the Spokane River Regional Toxics Task Force.
Members of the task force include representatives of the Washington Department of Ecology, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, the Spokane Tribe of Indians, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Indians, Spokane County, the city of Spokane, the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District, Inland Empire Paper Co., Kaiser Aluminum Washington, Avista Corp., the Spokane Riverkeeper, the Lands Council, and the Lake Spokane Association.
The goal of the task force is to develop a comprehensive plan to bring the Spokane River into compliance with water quality standards for PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). These pollutants exceed water quality standards in several segments of the river. These segments are on a list, known as the 303d list, which identifies lakes, streams and parts of rivers that fail to meet Washington’s water quality standards.
For the municipal and industrial wastewater dischargers to the river, participation in the task force is a requirement in the water quality permits issued by Ecology in 2011. The Idaho facilities that discharge to the river are expected to receive permits from the EPA in 2012 that may include a similar requirement. The agreement signed today can be amended to include the Idaho permit holders at that time.
PCBs are a family of man-made, chlorinated chemical compounds that were once used in a variety of applications such as insulating fluids for electric transformers and capacitors, paint additives, adhesives, caulks, inks, carbonless (mimeograph) paper, lubricants and hydraulic fluids.
PCBs are a persistent bioaccumulative pollutant, meaning they remain in the environment long after they were first introduced and build up in the food chain. Even though production of PCBs was banned in the U.S. in 1979 because of concerns about toxicity and their persistence in the environment, research has found very low levels of PCBs are nearly everywhere in the environment.
Scientists say these compounds have spread through our environment via aerial deposition from uses such as paints on our homes and through discharges to water from wastewater treatment plants and stormwater outfalls. PCBs may be present in products and materials produced before the 1979 PCB ban and in materials produced overseas.
PCBs are found in products that are inadvertently produced as part of various manufacturing processes. The sources of much of the PCB pollution are as yet unknown.
Washington municipal and industrial wastewater discharges currently account for less than 10 percent of the PCB contributions to the river. This contribution will be reduced even further with the installation of advanced treatment systems designed to reduce other pollutants.
The Spokane River Regional Toxics Task Force will examine data from previous Spokane River studies and develop future studies to fill in any missing information. The group must compile this comprehensive information to gain an understanding of the how much PCB pollution is getting to the Spokane River, where it’s located and how it got there in the first place.
After completing this effort, the group will prepare recommendations for controlling and reducing the sources of PCBs.
Municipal and industrial wastewater discharge permits require that Ecology define what constitutes “measurable progress” toward the goal of meeting water quality standards. If measurable progress is not made in locating and controlling sources, Ecology will pursue more traditional approaches such as developing a water quality improvement plan, known as a total maximum daily load report or TMDL. Ecology may also choose other alternatives to ensure that progress is being made.
The TMDL process establishes how much pollution a body of water can receive and still meet water quality standards and establishes enforceable limits for dischargers. Many believe the approach of creating the Spokane River Regional Toxics Task Force will be faster, less cumbersome and more effective at reducing pollutant loading to the River than the TMDL process.
Bruce Rawls from Spokane County Utilities said, “Instead of taking 10 to 20 years to develop a TMDL plan, the toxics task force will work collaboratively toward measurable progress on reduction of PCBs within the next five years.”
Spokane Riverkeeper Bart Mihailovich said, “This year we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act being signed in to law. We don’t have rivers catching on fire like the Cuyahoga anymore, but we haven’t solved all of our water pollution problems in this country either. This task force will go a long way in helping our community realize what the Clean Water Act set out to do.
Doug Krapas from Inland Empire Paper said, “We have demonstrated that we have a strong regional coalition that is dedicated to improving water quality in the Spokane River. We have a unique opportunity with the toxics task force to put that concept to work towards obtaining immediate results in lieu of taking the more conventional path that typically leads to disagreement, lack of progress and significant delays. I am confident that the task force can be a role model for others to follow in developing these very difficult water quality improvement plans.”
For more information:
Spokane River Toxics Task Force website http://srrttf.org/
Department of Ecology Spokane River website http://www.ecy.wa.gov/geographic/spokane/spokane_river_basin.htm