by KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & s there any way to filter angst out of the Spokane River? Can we find some modern device -- a boxcar-sized thing, let's say, with whale-like baleen strainers -- that glugs and sloshes and screens out tension?

There is such a machine, more on that later. The river is running thick with angst these days, at least as it relates to who has to keep certain kinds of crud from getting into the water, what methods they can use to achieve that goal and how long it should take them.

Stacey Cowles is one of those people. The publisher of the Spokesman-Review also runs Inland Empire Paper -- the Cowles Co. paper mill -- which is one of several entities stuck in a tangled mess of how to boost levels of dissolved oxygen in the Spokane River and make it healthier.

Recent changes to a clean-up deal that had been two years in the making prompted Cowles in late March to call one of the governor's key aides on a Sunday morning to vent his displeasure.

"My main concern was that somebody on the governor's staff be aware of the issues we are wrestling with," Cowles says. "I don't know what the governor can do except to help Ecology get us back to some acceptable level of regulation."

"I think there is a real issue of parity here," says Rick Eichstaedt, environmental attorney at the Center For Justice. "When the public has concerns, we are kept in the dark. When Inland Empire Paper has concerns, they (the state) drop everything and delay the process to try and address those."

Eichstaedt is sensitive on that point. When he criticized last fall the plan's 20-year allowance for enforcement in a Spokesman article, Ecology spokeswoman Janis Gilbert said, "If the Center For Justice wants to appeal, it will just delay improving the river. It will put everything on hold."

The irony, Eichstaedt says, is it has been the industrial polluters -- municipalities and industry -- who have threatened to sue and who have held up the process for four years.

"There is this public service attitude Ecology has where they treat (polluters) like customers as opposed to treating the public and the environment as their customers," he says.

The other side of that coin, according to Cowles and three officials at Inland Empire Paper, is Ecology slashing the agreed-upon time frame from 20 years to 10 to meet the tough standard for phosphorous discharge into the river.

Roughly 200 pounds of phosphorous a day enter the river. The paper mill is a small contributor but still is investing millions in cleanup technology that, mill officials contend, may never meet the stringent cleanup goal of 8 parts per billion.

"We discharge 16.6 pounds per day of phosphorous. Our technology, we believe, will get us to 2.75 pounds per day and the standard we have to get to is .27. And all of a sudden this is scrunched into 10 years -- that's where my heartburn comes from," says Wayne Andresen, the mill's president and general manager.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & E & lt;/span & fforts by Andresen and others at Inland Empire Paper to jump ahead of the curve and invest millions into cleanup technology and internal wastewater recycling have drawn praise from state and federal regulators, as well as Eichstaedt.

However, the federal Environmental Protection Agency apparently had some heartburn of its own that the deal being reached between Ecology and the industrial polluters was illegally allowing twice as much time to meet the cleanup standards.

As EPA and the polluters understood it, the deal allowed 20 years before the permit number (8 parts per billion) became an enforceable "wasteload allocation."

The polluters liked it. EPA did not, pointing out to Ecology that both state and federal law requires conditions of a permit be met in 10 years.

"As I understand this, the issue of 10 years versus 20 is not a new issue," says Dave Peeler, assistant to the director of Ecology and the man Director Jay Manning has appointed to shepherd the cleanup plan to completion. "This has been a item of discussion for the last two years. There is nothing new here."

Certainly Cowles and Inland Empire Paper saw something new on March 28, when they discussed changes in the permit language making the wastewater allocations enforceable after 10 years. The newspaper's publisher was upset enough to call the cell phone of Laurie Dolan, policy advisor to Gov. Christine Gregoire, two days later on a Sunday morning.

"It was pretty important to us and I may have overreacted a little bit," Cowles says. "We had our board meeting on Friday (March 28) and I heard about the issue and we decided we would make sure this is a direction the entire state knew about of how they (Ecology) were kinda ... how do I want to phrase it in a polite way ... were reversing themselves on this issue."

Cowles is not just in charge of the paper mill, though. As publisher of the largest independent daily in Eastern Washington, does he see any impropriety?

"I have always been a very strong advocate for Eastern Washington issues, so I don't think there is a conflict," he says.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & P & lt;/span & eeler says the 10- versus 20-year issue works like this: Discharge permits do have an enforceable wasteload target to be met in 10 years. But, if the admittedly tough standard cannot be reached, the polluters will get an extra 10 years to work it out.

Nobody else in the country is being asked, yet, to meet 8 parts per billion, and Peeler estimates the paper mill and sewage plants will be spending $500 million in filtering and treatment upgrades to meet that standard.

So from the state's perspective it's investing the millions now and we'll all use our inside voices and be team players when we talk again in a decade.

It's a rosy view and Andresen doesn't buy it. Inland Empire Paper would rather have some security (in extended time to reach the goal) before investing those millions into a technology that may never reach 8 ppb.

So Ecology and Inland Empire Paper are at loggerheads. The upshot of the lobbying call by Cowles, he and Ecology officials say, is that Ecology and the EPA are meeting with Inland Empire Paper to negotiate an agreement.

Cowles this week backed off of threats to sue the state. Inland Empire Paper is concerned that it comes across as a villain. In an unexpected move, company officials invited The Inlander to tour the mill.

"I'm working you over here, but I want you to know what we're all about," Assistant General Manager Kevin Rasler told us cheerfully during a tour that was eye-opening in a couple of respects.

First, paper isn't made from trees any more, Toto.

"It's not trees. It's industrial waste," Cowles says.

Railcars of baled garbage are delivered to the Millwood plant and sorted by hand into trash and fiber. The reclaimed fiber is mixed about 40-60 with wood chips and pulped into new paper.

Inside the anachronistic brick walls of the factory, cutting edge machinery runs round the clock, some making paper, others cleaning up effluent. One tertiary filtering machine -- one of only three on the planet, Rasler says -- is indeed boxcar-sized with water sloshing through extremely fine filters to remove phosphorous much as a whale uses baleen to strain out krill.

But even this modern device only gets the plant to 50 parts per billion.

Federal and state regulators both on and off the record praise Inland Empire Paper for jumping in ahead of regulations and making aggressive moves to reduce phosphorous discharge.

Many are surprised at the blowup over the 10-year limit on enforcement and don't see any benefit to a fistfight on the issue.

"Nobody is happy with the situation, but frankly the science going into this is pretty solid," says one government scientist, who requested anonymity in fear of reprimand for speaking on the issue. "I think it is pretty much bulletproof. They can challenge it, but good luck."

Love Letters to Earth @ Shadle Library

Fri., Feb. 3, 4-5 p.m.
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