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Feds Explain Potlatch Switch

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, April 8, 2004

Fisheries officials say they had a change of heart
after looking at options proposed by the mill and EPA

Federal fisheries officials changed their opinion of a proposed wastewater permit for the Potlatch Corp. mill because of changes made to the permit to improve water quality.

Dave Mabe, of the fisheries division of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at Boise, said several changes proposed by Potlatch and the Environmental Protection Agency persuaded him and others at the agency to decide the permit would not threaten the survival of Snake River salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act.

"Because of conservation measures proposed by EPA and Potlatch, and because of our ability to better analyze the potential effects, we don't believe the discharge is going to jeopardize salmon or steelhead," said Mabe.

The fisheries agency is required to review any federal action that may harm protected salmon and steelhead. Because the EPA permit would allow Potlatch Corp. to continue to discharge up to 40 million gallons of wastewater into the Snake River on a daily basis, officials from NOAA fisheries had to analyze the permit and determine if fish would be harmed.

The document, known as a biological opinion, indicates the permit and the company's discharge will not threaten the existence of the salmon stocks. But a draft of the document released last year said the permit would threaten the fish with extinction.

The permit has been controversial since it was first proposed more than five years ago. Environmental groups sued the EPA to force the agency to issue the company a new permit when its old permit expired in 1997. The first draft of the permit, hailed by environmentalists and the Nez Perce Tribe, said the water released by Potlatch was too warm and had to be cooled to 68 degrees during the hot summer months.

The company complained and said cooling the water would cost millions per year. The agency backed off the temperature standards and now will only require the company to reduce its wastewater from about 92 degrees to 89.6 degrees in July, 87.8 degrees in August and 86 degrees in September.

Officials at the Nez Perce Tribe want to know why the standards have been relaxed and what happened to change the minds of the federal fisheries officials.

"It's just amazing to me. A year ago we had the jeopardy biological opinion and now we don't. What happened to warrant that? That is something we don't quite understand and are taking a close look at," said Rick Eichstaedt, an attorney for the tribe at Lapwai.

Eichstaedt said the tribe doesn't understand the federal government's strategy on reducing water temperature. He noted that Dworshak Reservoir is drawn down 80 feet each summer to cool the Snake River, yet the government continues to allow Potlatch to discharge warm water into the river.

"There seems to be a real disconnect on what the strategy is," he said.

The tribe has been involved in the permit process because of its concern for salmon and steelhead recovery and because tribal members eat higher levels of fish than the general population.

Some of the changes made to the permit include conservation measures agreed to by Potlatch, such as mixing its wastewater with cold Clearwater River water before it is released into the Snake River, reducing nutrients in the effluent and increasing the level of dissolved oxygen in the wastewater.

The biological opinion clears the way for EPA to issue a final permit to the company. Officials at EPA did not return phone calls seeking information about a timetable for a final permit Wednesday.

Related Pages:
Potlatch Mill Discharge is OK for Fish by Eric Barker, Lewiston Tribune, 4/7/4

Eric Barker
Feds Explain Potlatch Switch
Lewiston Tribune, April 8, 2004

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