Attorneys Rachael Paschal Osborne, representing the Sierra Club, and Rick Eichstaedt of the Center for Justice, each well versed in river issues, cited these main objections Monday evening during an explanatory session that the Sierra Club held on the cleanup plan:
4 The scientist who wrote the plan refused to sign it and resigned in protest after changes were made that lowered the standard. (Hydrologist Drea Traeumer, who resigned last month, was the third state or federal scientist to quit or be reassigned from the project over concerns it was too weak, Eichstaedt says.)
4 The plan violates both federal and state law.
4 The plan caves in to threats from dischargers.
4 The plan ignores dam operations as offering potential solutions to the low levels of dissolved oxygen.
Ecology stands behind the plan as a hard-fought collaboration that will reduce phosphorous levels in the river by 95 percent, says Jani Gilbert, information officer for Ecology's Spokane office.
"This is a compromise ... I wouldn't want to say more than that," says Gilbert, who attended the Sierra Club session. "I think they did a good job. I appreciate having their point of view explained to me so clearly."
Perhaps because of concerns about the plan voiced by the Sierra Club and Center for Justice, Ecology has extended the original 45-day comment period by more than three weeks, with a new deadline of Nov. 13.
Ecology will conduct open houses and public hearings on the plan on successive Wednesdays, Oct. 3 and Oct. 10, at Spokane Falls Community College's Student Union Building. The open houses run 5-7 pm, with the hearings from 7-9 pm.
The premise for this cleanup plan -- in the works since 1998 -- is that the level of phosphorous in the Spokane River contributes to algae blooms. When the algae dies, it sinks to the bottom of the river -- especially in the reservoir behind Avista's Long Lake Dam -- and sucks oxygen out of the water, making life difficult for plants and fish and lessening the river's ability to clean itself through aeration. Blue-green algae, moreover, can be toxic, making portions of the reservoir unswimmable.
The plan focuses on five major dischargers in Washington: Spokane's wastewater treatment plant, Spokane's combined sewage overflow system (basically stormwater runoff that is piped directly into the river), Liberty Lake's sewage treatment plant, the Inland Empire Paper mill in Millwood and the Kaiser rolling mill at Trentwood, along with three more in Idaho -- wastewater discharges from Post Falls, Coeur d'Alene and Hayden.
The goal is to reach 10 micrograms of phosphorous per liter of water through permits that give each discharger 20 years to get there. One Ecology staffer at the Sept. 12 unveiling of the cleanup plan equates the required phosphorous level to a drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
Traeumer, in a commentary sent to The Inlander, writes, "My decision to leave ... was a disagreement over a policy decision that, in my opinion, does not comport with the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act and thus renders the Spokane River dissolved oxygen cleanup plan ... indefensible."
The original draft cleanup plan, Traeumer, Eichstaedt and Paschal Osborne say, measured water quality where the Spokane River left Lake Coeur d'Alene as setting the natural condition.
This set the cleanup bar high, Traeumer writes, because the levels of phosphorous and dissolved oxygen are pretty good there.
Dischargers were concerned they would be required to meet an impossible cleanup standard and threatened to sue, which delayed the process for three years of extra data gathering and two of a "collaboration" by municipalities, the Spokane Tribe, the county, industries and environmental groups to reach a compromise.
The compromise allows dischargers to aim for a total maximum daily load (TMDL) of 50 micrograms of phosphorous per liter, getting to the goal of 10 in 20 years. Eichstaedt says this breaks Washington law, which only allows a decade to meet pollution standards.
Gilbert says Ecology will be checking in at 10 years (and even more frequently) and can enforce noncompliance at that time. The extra decade, she says, recognizes the risk that comes with new technology, and she defends the compromise: "The dischargers are making huge investments in emerging technology and we have every confidence we will
see huge changes."
Eichstaedt points out an EPA study shows that treatment plants from coast to coast are already meeting phosphorous standards as low as 0.05 micrograms per liter and doing it economically. Monthly sewer fees in the cities in the study ranged from $18 to $46 and typically were less than $30, the study says.
Allowing two decades to meet the cleanup goal and re-jiggering the "natural condition" of the river is caving in to dischargers who threatened to sue, Eichstadt says.
Traeumer writes, "Simply put, the policy decision to alter the water quality standard [to levels at the state line] resulted in a win-win situation for Washington and Idaho dischargers."
"It's a very minuscule amount of phosphorous coming over the border, and we don't feel it's enough to waylay the progress we are making," Ecology's Gilbert says of the additional phosphorous at the state line.
Eichstaedt disagrees. Declaring the river to be "new" at the state line was done by the EPA without consulting Ecology, though Ecology never challenged it, and appears to violate the Clean Water Act, he says.
"Federal regulation says you cannot cause or contribute to," failure to meet water quality standards downstream, Eichstaedt says, which is precisely what the EPA decision appears to do.
"This is not rocket science," Eichstaedt says. "They can even do this in Idaho," he says, citing an agreement by Idaho Power to aerate water behind the Brownlee Dam on the Snake River to alleviate phosphorous and dissolved oxygen issues much like the ones here.