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Appeals Court: clean up Spokane River PCB pollution

News Release – August 17, 2016

Dept of Ecology must redo permit for Spokane County’s Wastewater Treatment Facility consistent with water quality laws

Contacts:

  • Rachael Paschal Osborn (Sierra Club) 509.954-5641 rdpaschal@earthlink.net
  • Dan Von Seggern (Center for Environmental Law & Policy) 206.829-8299 dvonseggern@celp.org

Spokane – On August 16, the Washington State Court of Appeals issued the third legal decision in favor of Spokane River advocates seeking to stop more PCBs from being added to the Spokane River from the Spokane County’s wastewater treatment facility. Three courts have now ruled that the Department of Ecology (“Ecology”) failed to do what the law requires: analyze whether the County’s discharge of PCBs has potential to violate state water quality standards, and if so, then impose appropriate limits to prevent such violations. The Appeals Court left intact an earlier ruling that the Spokane River Toxics Task Force is not an adequate or legal substitute for pollution control limits.

Sierra Club and the Center for Environmental Law & Policy (CELP) filed the lawsuit against Ecology in 2011, and praised the Court’s ruling. “The Court decision is another important step to clean up PCBs polluting the Spokane River,” said Rachael Paschal Osborn, with Sierra Club and CELP.

In rejecting the appeal by Ecology and Spokane County, the Appeals Court stands with earlier decisions that, because the 2011 permit lacks any limit on PCB discharges, it violates the Clean Water Act, and that other terms of the permit are vague and unenforceable. The Board remanded the permit back to Ecology to do over.

The Spokane River is among Washington State’s most contaminated river for PCBs. Exposure to PCBs through ingestion of Spokane River fish represents a public health hazard.  In 2008, the Washington State Department of Health issued fish consumption advisories, recommending limited or no consumption of fish from Lake Roosevelt and the Spokane River.

In 2011, Sierra Club’s Upper Columbia River Group and CELP filed this suit and a companion lawsuit in federal court to compel Washington State and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to uphold water quality laws for the Spokane River. The Spokane Tribe intervened in support of the federal lawsuit. In that case, a Seattle federal judge ruled that EPA was wrong not to require the Washington State to prepare a clean-up plan for Spokane River PCBs.

“The Clean Water Act requires the Department of Ecology to protect our public waters by evaluating a new facility’s potential for pollution and placing appropriate limits on discharges,” said Dan Von Seggern, staff attorney with the Center for Environmental Law & Policy. “Here, the court affirmed that Ecology must evaluate and limit PCB discharges from Spokane County’s wastewater treatment facility. This ruling is an important step in reducing PCB pollution in the Spokane River.”

Sierra Club and CELP are represented by attorney Richard Smith of Smith & Lowney PLLC.

Links:

More on the 2013 ruling upheld by state courts

The state’s pollution court, the Pollution Control Hearings Board (PCHB) ruled that the Toxics Management Program in Ecology’s 2011 permit “is “confusing, vague, and lacks definition of key terms. More importantly, it lacks deadlines by which Spokane County is to undertake and/or complete actions to reduce PCBs in influent to the facility. It lacks mandatory language requiring Spokane County to actually undertake necessary actions to achieve reductions in PCBs in both influent and effluent. . . . [R]ather than requiring Spokane County to meet water quality standards, the [Toxics Management Program] only asks that the County take steps so that ‘in time the effluent does not contribute to PCBs in the Spokane River exceeding applicable water quality standards.’ . . . The Permit must require Spokane County to comply with water quality standards . . . .”” (Paragraph 13, p 23-24) This requirement will need to include compliance with the Spokane Tribe’s downstream water quality standards that were adopted by the Tribe and approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2003.

Additionally, the Board ruled that the Regional Toxics Task Force fails “to require that “goals be achieved by a specified date. Nor does [this permit condition] establish an objective standard against which its accomplishments can be measured . . . . [The Toxics Task Force permit condition] does not impose any restrictions on quantities, rates, and concentrations of PCBs being discharged from point sources into the Spokane River. While the Board finds that the creation of the Task Force is a positive step toward bring the Spokane River into compliance with water quality standards for PCBs, it is uncertain that the Task Force will achieve any of its stated goals or achieve a measurable reduction in the discharge of PCBs. . . . Ecology is directed on remand to modify the [Toxics Task Force permit condition] to make clear that compliance with the Permit’s requirements take precedence over the work of the Task Force.”” (Paragraph 17, pp 26-27)

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