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Bad budgets may mean a delay in cleaning up the Spokane River.

click to enlarge The Spokane River - GLEN LANDBERG
  • Glen Landberg
  • The Spokane River

A quip from Gov. Christine Gregoire about suspending environmental cleanup of the Spokane River until the economy improves has created ripples of confusion.

“She asked us how would we feel about a moratorium on rule-making, that’s what her words were. I said sign us up,” says City Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin, who met with the governor two weeks ago as part of a delegation of city and county officials from throughout the state.

Upgrading wastewater treatment processes to remove almost all of the phosphorus that reaches the river is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade.

It’s not exactly clear what Gregoire meant by her remark, but a “moratorium on rule-making” is generally understood to mean that if an agency such as the Department of Ecology doesn’t create specific rules for a cleanup plan, the plan is not enforced.

A moratorium “is an idea that’s been batted around. I don’t know where it’s at. It is one strategy among many to help municipalities and businesses get through these difficult times,” says Karina Shagren, a former Spokane television reporter who is one of the information officers in the governor’s office.

The timing of Gregoire’s remark is striking.

The latest version of the Spokane River cleanup plan is on the verge of implementation after years of being staggered by back-room fist-fighting and leg-wrestling among the array of industrial and government polluters in two states.

Permits to regulate how much phosphorus can be dumped into the river are out for public review. But this latest plan, known as a TMDL for total maximum daily load, has also been taken to federal court by two municipal wastewater dischargers in Idaho, who claim they have to meet more stringent cleanup standards than dischargers in Washington.

Also — and this appears to have been kept on the down-low — the disgruntled Idaho dischargers (the city of Post Falls and the Hayden Area Regional Sewer Board were first to sue and Coeur d’Alene has since joined) have a meeting this week at the regional headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle about settling the lawsuit.

The EPA issues discharge permits in Idaho, while the state Department of Ecology does the same in Washington.

Two local environmental watchdog groups — Spokane Riverkeeper and the Lands Council — learned about the potential settlement talks last week and joined the lawsuit (on EPA’s side) “in order to get a seat at the table,” Riverkeeper attorney Rick Eichstaedt says.

Eichstaedt told the nonprofit Center for Justice last week that “the most important part of why we’re intervening is that sometimes in these kind of cases the resolution is not in the courtroom. It’s in the smoky back room, and the smoky back room has materialized.”

Given the expense facing the city amid state and local budget cutbacks, McLaughlin says, “We basically said to [Gregoire] the agencies need to be aware of how this is affecting cities.

“We are not saying we want a polluted river, but can we pause? Can we slow down?”

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