Spokane County Either Won a Major Victory, Or Suffered a
Both sides are claiming victory, with radically different interpretations, over a recent decision by the Pollution Control Hearings Board. The Sierra Club and Center for Environmental Law & Policy had objected to the Washington State Department of Ecology's decision granting a permit to Spokane County's new wastewater treatment plant, despite the plant dumping new polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the river. PCBs are toxins that can build up in larger fish, making them potentially dangerous to eat.
"The plant contributes PCBs to the most PCB-polluted river in the state of Washington," says John Osborn, co-chair of the Sierra Club's Upper Columbia River Group.
The hearing board found that "portions" of the permit were invalid, and sent the permit back to Ecology to revise several sections before reissuing it.
The board ruled the permit for the plan does "NOT violate anti-degradation regulations and the facility may continue to operate and discharge into the Spokane River," the Spokane County press release read.
"Spokane County ordered to shut down new $170 million Sewage Treatment Plant" the Sierra Club press release began.
The two diverging analyses show just how radically different Spokane County and the Sierra Club view the very important ruling.
Kevin Cooke, utilities director for Spokane County, says that, while revisions of the permit are required, "our state-of-the-art plant, which is one of the best in the nation, if not in the world, will continue to operate" and that the County will work closely with Ecology.
But Osborn says "the county took a $170 million gamble with the public money to build a plant with a pipe to the river. We think they lost." The changes Ecology has to make to the permit, Osborn says, are anything but simple. He says the county may have to spread some of the effluent at a wetland at Saltese Flats instead of dumping it directly into the river.
"If they think they can minimize this or tweak the conditions they are wrong," he says. "Right now, they are discharging in violation of the law. They should not be discharging."
Ecology, however, believes the decision does not put the county out of compliance with the Clean Water Act. "We want to emphasize that we feel that keeping the plant in operation is really better for the river," says Brook Beeler, communication manager for Ecology's Eastern Region. "It's a much better facility than if it were re-routed through the old system."
Osborn says the group may be back in front of the Pollution Control Hearings Board to clarify the ruling. Either party has 30 days to appeal the decision.
Even if Spokane County can continue operating its plant as-is, the legal troubles aren't over. The Sierra Club has a federal case in the works as well.
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