And when feds throw a confab -- especially when word spreads that they are going to apologize for screwing up -- people turn out for the occasion.
Just before 10 am last Friday, all the big dogs came rolling up with Blackberries and more than a few lawyers in tow as they strolled into the new Fire Training Center just east of Spokane Community College.
There were elected officials, dischargers, watchdogs, regulators, Congressional aides from two states, even a rogue scientist. They all came to hear Christine Psyk, an associate director of the EPA Region 10 office in Seattle, explain why the agonizingly slow effort to clean up the Spokane River had blown up once again.
Psyk (pronounced pike), already a target of stares and speculation, was wearing a blazing red skirt and jacket as she stood with a cluster of other regulatory chieftains from Washington and Idaho at the deep end of the long, rectangular conference room. And the people kept coming -- engineers, researchers, wastewater treatment plant supervisors, river health advocates, sewer board members.
The flood of attendees had staffers for the state Department of Ecology scurrying off to shanghai extra chairs from elsewhere in the building and hustle them to the conference room.
When the doors finally closed on a room filled to capacity, the EPA, apparently nervous at being the bearers of bad news, had brought along a moderator who outlined rules of conduct that would be fit for any kindergarten or biker bar where there's a danger of people getting rowdy: One speaker at a time, show respect for the speaker, assume no malice in someone else's remarks, and stay focused. "What did they think was going to happen?" an astonished Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke said later with a laugh.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & fter the behavioral guidelines were laid down, Psyk took the podium and read from a five-page, single-spaced prepared statement that included these rare sentences right up front: "I ... want to apologize to all those dedicated stakeholders who were poised to take action to clean up the phosphorous entering the river. I regret that EPA's decision to change course ... will mean delay of implementing actions to reduce phosphorous."
Psyk confirmed EPA's math on figuring waste load allocations -- that is, how much phosphorous can be discharged into the Spokane River -- is wrong and the method of zeroing out nutrients where water crosses the state line is legally indefensible, according to the national office in Washington, D.C.
Amazingly, for all the work that went into offering a breast-beating mea culpa to the roomful of people who have committed to spending millions of dollars on wastewater technologies, the locals were treated like chumps. EPA refused to discuss anything about the legal ground that had forced the agency to pull a 180. The Region 10 staff dodged such questions last Friday, even though many players in the room had brought attorneys in expectation of discussing this very topic.
And Linda Boorzanian, EPA's director of the Water Permits Division in Washington, D.C., cheerfully but firmly refused to offer additional explanation to The Inlander this week.
Absent any information from EPA, the smart money is riding on the speculation that EPA's proposed method of allowing each state the maximum loading of nutrients would set a terrible precedent in places like the Mississippi River drainage or Chesapeake Bay, where the agency may have to sort out who is responsible for what levels of pollution.
After finishing her scripted remarks, Psyk said, "I notice a lot of attorneys in the room. We are not prepared to have a legal discussion, per se."
Undeterred, the first to lob a question was Kris Holm, an attorney who, despite knee replacement surgery only days earlier, dragged herself to this don't-miss event saying, "I am here channeling Sid Fredrickson," Coeur d'Alene's wastewater superintendent.
Holm bluntly asked Psyk why EPA didn't bring an attorney when, as the agency admitted, the river cleanup has been stalled on legal grounds, and asked if EPA had a written explanation of the legal issues involved.
"I think we all deserve a written presentation on what the legal error was," Holm insisted. "Will we see a written explanation?"
Also, Holm said, the long mea culpa is not exactly news. EPA's plan to allow Idaho dischargers the maximum allowable phosphorous in the river, then consider it "natural background" at the border so that Washington dischargers could also release the maximum into the river -- famously known as 2+2=2 -- has long been challenged as bad math.
"This has been brought up in 2004, 2005 and 2006," Holm said. "So now you are asking everybody to be patient? We need to understand what EPA's legal basis is. ... We took on faith EPA's original assessment."
In addition to the lack of transparency on the legal question, there were also few specifics on what happens next, purported to be the gist of Friday's meeting. (Holm, in a comment that drew laughs, said she gets more information on Spokane River pollution issues from the watchdog Center For Justice Website.)
The meeting was so baffling and short on specifics that the dischargers -- Inland Empire Paper, Kaiser and municipalities that "have a pipe in the river" -- all met later, Mielke said.
"We said, 'Let's compare notes and figure out what did we just hear?'" Mielke said. Secondly, he added, the group felt burned that just as the 20-year effort to address phosphorous pollution and the resulting decline in the river's dissolved oxygen levels was on the cusp of action, it all fell apart.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he best that Psyk and the state Department of Ecology's special point man for the river, Dave Peeler, could offer Friday was that the regulators would go back to the beginning to craft another approach to handle phosphorous loading in the river, run some simulations and then report back. In about a year.
The "rogue scientist" in the room Friday could only shake his head. "This is a huge waste of money and effort by going back to the beginning. I think they just wasted four years," said Ken Merrill, formerly a river scientist with the state DOE.
Just a year ago, Merrill was one of three state or federal scientists who were either reassigned by superiors or who quit after peskily insisting the river cleanup policy of 2+2=2 was wrong.
Merrill, who now works for the Kalispel Tribe, was reassigned by Ecology after shepherding the Spokane River cleanup efforts. Dave Ragsdale, a 30-year veteran at EPA, was also removed from the project and ordered not to talk about it, he told the press last fall. The lead scientist for the state, Drea Traeumer, quit in protest rather than endorse a cleanup approach that she said was "scientifically indefensible."
"I'm really happy the jig is up," Traeumer (tray-mer) said from Reno, where she is working on water projects as a consultant. "Now they are going to have to meet 10 at the end of the pipe with no opportunity for pollutant trading."
Translated to English, Traeumer said the dischargers are likely to revert to the conditions in the original 2004 draft TMDL (total maximum daily load), which allowed 10 parts per billion of phosphorous.
Whether all this fuss will lead to stricter or weaker regulations is unclear at this point. The EPA and Ecology said they will run some pollution simulations, with answers expected in a year.
It was threat of a lawsuit from the dischargers -- facing millions in expenditures on unproven technology to meet what many saw as an unattainable cleanup standard -- that led to politicking and accommodation with the 2+2=2 approach and a "Delta Management Approach" that allowed dischargers some wiggle room at the ends of their pipes in the river if they reduced "nonpoint" phosphorous sources such as stormwater runoff or cleaning up tributaries such as Latah Creek.
Now that it's fallen apart, all the entities are in a holding pattern.
Rick Eichstaedt, Center For Justice attorney representing the Sierra Club, asked if Avista's dam operations finally will be considered in the TMDL now that everyone is going back to square one.
The response from Ecology's Peeler, who took the moment to announce he is leaving the agency inside a month, was basically not to hold your breath.
Among the other unusual developments in this tangled process, Inland Empire Paper is on the same side as Center For Justice and the Sierra Club in seeking Avista's participation in the TMDL. The argument is that if Avista increases flows, there may be enough change in background nutrient levels that dischargers may have a better shot at meeting the stringent phosphorous standards -- said to be six times tougher than anywhere else in the nation.
"The dischargers all say there is no technology that allows them to meet the standard," Merrill says. No one is giving serious attention to widely available practices to reclaim and re-use treated wastewater for irrigation and other uses that are already commonplace in areas of the country facing a water shortage, he says.
"Here in Spokane the only thing that runs out of water is the river in the summertime and nobody cares," Merrill says. "Why should we keep pumping cold, clean water from the aquifer, make wastewater out of it (via irrigation) and put it back in the river?"
Something to discuss, perhaps, while awaiting EPA's new formula on pollution.
DON'T WAIT TO HELP
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he Sixth Annual Spokane River Clean-up will take place Saturday, Oct. 4, in the Spokane River Gorge, 9 am to 3 pm at High Bridge Park. Friends of the Falls coordinates the clean-up with help from partner organizations. Register online at www.friendsofthefalls.org. Walkups are welcome. Volunteers are urged to park at Spokane Falls Community College and board an STA shuttle (every 15 minutes starting at 8:30 am, free pass handed out at SFCC) to reach High Bridge Park.