Water Woes

In mathematics, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Not so in politics.

In mathematics, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Not so in politics. Two steps forward, one step back, maybe a side step: That's the more likely path. Consider the dispute between the Liberty Lake Sewer District (LLSD) and the Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE).

This spring, the DOE issued LLSD a draft discharge permit to replace the one that expired in 2002. Total permitted effluent was substantially reduced, as were permitted concentrations of several regulated pollutants. The final permit will be issued this fall. Liberty Lake needs to cut back its effluent; otherwise, daily fines for non-compliance become a possibility.

According to DOE's Permit Supervisor Len Bramble, the agency's goal is reducing the discharge of oxygen-demanding material into the Spokane River, portions of which have been designated areas of concern for low-dissolved oxygen. Environmental studies of the river, to be completed in two years, should clarify the effects of low-dissolved oxygen on the Spokane River's fish and other aquatic resources.

Liberty Lake officials and residents foresaw economic disaster. Immediate compliance might require a moratorium on new sewer hookups, killing the area's residential construction boom. The new rules could also abort recovery of Liberty Lake's depressed commercial and industrial sector, because rehiring laid-off workers would create increased sewage flows that might not fit within the new ceilings.

There followed a storm of protests to both DOE and Governor Gary Locke. In response, DOE officials and the Governor's Special Assistant for Business, Paul Isaki, met with Liberty Lake residents and community leaders to sort things out.

LLSD and DOE officials now downplay the possibility of disrupted service or restrictions on new connections. They see the issue as what to do during the time after the new permit is issued, but before Liberty Lake's expanded and modernized treatment plant comes on line in 2005. The new plant will more than comply with new standards.

Remaining issues are how much compliance will be required before the new plant is completed, when that near-term compliance be required, and what additional costs will it impose on LLSD and its customers.

According to LLSD Chief Operator Dan Grogg, a near-term compliance option might be to employ a phosphorus removal process. However, that process would add to expected investment and increase costs associated with biosolids handling. That investment would be made obsolete by completion of the new plant, so officials would like not to spend the money if possible.

DOE and LLSD officials now speak of compromise, new approaches and win-win solutions. Results of their negotiation will be known when the final permit is issued this fall.

But why did it take a brouhaha to get to this point? Why didn't DOE initially apply the new standards to the new plant? Two years of patience would eliminate the need for spending scarce capital on soon-to-be-obsolete facilities. Waiting would also allow decisions to be informed by ongoing scientific studies of how dissolved oxygen levels affect the Spokane River.

These were the themes of comments by residents and community leaders during a recent DOE-led public hearing.

Among the critics of DOE's demand for immediate compliance was Bill Williams, Liberty Lake resident and founder and chairman of Telect, one of Liberty Lake's largest employers and its largest taxpayer. In a strongly worded letter to Governor Locke, Williams emphasized the broader economic implications of DOE's approach to permitting. "This is one of many issues Boeing and our entire state's business community give as reasons for our state's reputation as an unfriendly business environment... [This] could establish a precedent effecting our entire state's economy... The appearance is that jobs and the economy of our state never crossed [DOE's] minds."

One explanation for DOE impatience is pressure from environmental advocates. Leslie Thorpe of DOE's Olympia Headquarters explains that DOE and the Environmental Protection Agency entered into a 1998 consent agreement with Northwest Environmental Advocates and the Northwest Environmental Defense Center to accelerate cleanup of Washington State waters.

Messy though it is, the process may serve a purpose. Community pressure may have been necessary to impress DOE officials with the relevance of costs and economic consequences. DOE's demand for immediate compliance may have been equally necessary to focus LLSD officials and Liberty Lake community leaders on the need to improve their system's environmental performance, as much as possible, as soon as possible.

Come this fall, we'll learn how it turns out -- how much of DOE's demand for near-term (within two years) compliance remains, and what those demands will cost Liberty Lake residents.

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About The Author

Robert Stokes

Robert Stokes provided commentary for The Inlander from 2001 to 2009. He served in the Army in Germany, taught economics at the University of Washington, loved to fish and had two daughters and four grandkids over in Seattle. But he never quite left Spokane Valley; he returned in the mid-1990s to take care...