Sedimental Journey

Two scientists poke around in the city’s plumbing to find sources of PCB pollution

Hot fish. Make that “hot” fish, as in polluted, toxic fish. Find yourself some hot fish and, like some sort of scientific Sherlock Holmes, you might begin to unravel where the toxic compounds in the Spokane River are coming from.

That is, if scientist Sherlock Holmes pulled on a protective haz-mat suit and long rubber gloves.

Arianne Fernandez is that kind of scientist. She and her colleague Ted Hamlin are key members of the Department of Ecology’s recently formed Urban Waters team. Since spring, Fernandez, a hazardous waste specialist, and Hamlin, a stormwater inspector, have been running a diagnostic on the city of Spokane, plunging up to their elbows in sewer and stormwater pipes, carefully collecting samples of stuff most of us don’t want to think about.

This is called “going up the pipes” and it can be just as gross as you imagine it to be.

The Urban Waters crew is looking for PCBs — one of the more persistent and dangerous contaminants in the Spokane River.

Though their investigation is new, the knowledge that the city contributes hugely to PCBs in the river is not. And environmental watchdogs are about to put the city and Ecology on notice that they will sue unless efforts to reduce PCB contamination — required by permit — are stepped up.

Polychlorinated biphenyls present a clear human health hazard, says Michael Chappell, director of the Gonzaga Environmental Law Clinic. Despite a state-issued Phase II stormwater permit that requires the city to address PCB discharges, neither the city nor Ecology have been doing much to enforce it in recent years, Chappell says.

“I think, unfortunately, the direction from Ecology for the last 11 years has been to focus on phosphorus when there are other contaminants that, arguably, are far worse,” Chappell says.

Andy Dunau, who moderates the Spokane River Forum, a clearinghouse for river information, says Ecology has stubbornly insisted on addressing one contaminant at a time. The cleanup plan for phosphorus, which was supposed to have been adopted years ago, is delaying work on more insidious threats.

High PCB levels, Chappell notes, mean, “We have entire stretches of the river with severe limits in how much fish people can eat.”

In a September memo, he recommended that Spokane Riverkeeper and the Center for Justice file a 60-day notice of intent to sue over PCB cleanup. That notice is said to be imminent.

Meanwhile, city wastewater supervisor Dale Arnold, along with the Ecology scientists, says that the Urban Waters program is the initial step to identify and reduce PCBs that come pouring out of city stormwater pipes every time it rains.

How big is the problem? Consider: Upstream of Spokane, the river is comfortably within the allowance of less than 170 parts per billion of PCBs. As the river passes through the city, PCB levels shoot to 399.

More to the point: The federally enforced health limit in Spokane Tribal waters downstream is 3 ppb. This number is based upon consumption of a single fish stick a day, which the tribe thinks may be unrealistic and is contemplating a more severe restriction.

Trying to explain the Urban Waters research to a civilian last week, Fernandez retrieved a whiteboard from her cubicle at Ecology’s local headquarters on North Monroe.

The board was filled with observations, data and charts written neatly in several different colors of dry-erase markers. Down in the lower left-hand corner is a sketch that looks like a classic bell curve. It is where repeated sampling has turned up elevated levels of PCBs in the Spokane River.

“We took some sampling at state line and it’s way down here,” Fernandez says, using her finger to trace a flat line of low PCB levels that begins the diagram. Even as the river flows into Spokane Valley past Kaiser Aluminum and Inland Empire Paper — both industrial dischargers of PCBs — the line Fernandez’ finger is tracing remains pretty flat.

On the other side of the city, around Nine Mile, the line also is flat.

“But there is this one big spike in the middle,” in between the Upriver Dam and Monroe Street Dam, Fernandez says.

The diagram points an accusatory finger right at the city. Yet there is no oily factory belching clouds of PCBs. The tiny contaminants, which never really decompose, are simply everywhere — residue of America’s industrial past.

PCBs, impossibly tiny and almost impossible to eradicate, are one of the nastier of nasties in the river. They accumulate in our bodies, are implicated in a variety of cancers and in disrupting immune and reproductive systems and thyroid functions — even at small doses.

Created in a lab in 1929, PCBs were seen as a kind of wonder compound that performed brilliantly as a heat exchanger and never caught fi re. It was used primarily as a coolant in electrical transformers, hydro dams and in hydraulic systems, but after World War II it turned up in everything from paints to newspaper inks.

And like DDT, another “wonder product” of the post-war era, PCBs were recognized early on as being dangerous to human health. They were banned in 1976 when Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act, and no PCBs (there are 209 varieties) have been produced domestically since 1979.

But here it is 30 years later, and the city of Spokane is like the Death Star of PCBs in the river. How to attack it?

Let’s go back to the whiteboard.

“The spike in between those two dams is where we were looking in the sub-basins for the stormwater,” Fernandez says. She and Hamlin focused on a series of manholes near the Union Gospel Mission. Under these streets, some of the oldest in the city, are pipes that branch out like the roots of a tree, serving industries and streets and bearing away stormwater to the river.

The city has 100 sub-basins, Arnold says, and the one that discharges near the mission has shown some of the highest levels of PCBs.

“We don’t know if we found the source that is causing this, but our toxics cleanup program is doing a cleanup at the old City Parcel building, which is connected to the Union basin,” Fernandez says. “So we did some sediment sampling in the city catch basin to see what was running off that parcel, and we did fi nd elevated levels.”

Current methods of collecting sediment samples from stormwater are based on the vertical rise of water in a cistern or vault that spills into a bottle-shaped collector.

In Spokane, the pipes don’t allow for that. So Hamlin, with $32 worth of plywood and hardware, invented an in-line sediment trap in his garage this summer.

When it was tested in Hangman Creek, it worked so well that he went to a local sheet-metal shop to make a stainless steel prototype.

Last month, a city crew placed the gleaming trap in the bottom of the stormwater pipe near the Union Gospel Mission. The trap will be scientifically reviewed to make sure its results are accurate and defensible, Hamlin says, and copies could be ready for use around the city next year. This would be a major step toward collecting pipe-specific data on PCB levels.

Such a tool could help the city find other old contaminated properties like the City Parcel site, Arnold says.

“We can see if we can pinpoint some industrial areas or areas where there have historically been spills or leaks from transformers,” he says. “And then we can clean out the sediments in those catch basins. That is probably the only thing we can do to curb or mitigate PCBs is to clean out the sediments.”

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About The Author

Kevin Taylor

Kevin Taylor is a staff writer for The Inlander. He has covered politics, the environment, police and the tribes, among many other things.