Three municipal operators along with Kaiser Aluminum Corp. and Inland Empire Paper Co. have Spokane River discharge permits up for renewal, but participants are raising concerns about higher regulatory standards being imposed as part of permit updates.
For one, those interviewed have questions about the Washington state Department of Ecology’s inclusion of water quality-based effluent daily limits by 2026 for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) at a minute level some argue isn’t realistic at this juncture. Also, participants say DOE should consider recent multiple tests of river samplings indicating significantly improved water quality and low PCBs.
DOE reviews and reissues its permits on a five-year cycle under water quality standards, while protecting the river that has suffered from low dissolved oxygen affecting fish and high PCB levels.
Kaiser, IEP, the city of Spokane, Liberty Lake Sewer & Water District, and Spokane County are set to have 2011 permits reissued by year-end. The updated permits include limits on phosphorus and other common pollutants, intermediate targets for meeting final limits of PCBs, and continued participation in the Spokane River Regional Toxics Task Force.
Phosphorus and other nutrients in the Spokane River and Lake Spokane cause depletion of dissolved oxygen that fish and aquatic life need to survive—and can cause toxic algae blooms.
Brook Beeler, a Spokane-based DOE spokeswoman, says regional work toward improved river quality in recent years has been innovative and inclusive.
“Everyone participating deserves credit for the work,” Beeler says. “We still have to uphold our responsibility to ensure clean water and make sure there are targets and limits.”
In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved DOE’s water quality improvement report for Lake Spokane on dissolved oxygen levels affected by nutrients such as ammonia, phosphorus, and Carbonaceous Biochemical Oxygen Demand (CBOD). DOE’s model showed effluent from municipal and industrial dischargers contributed to the low dissolved oxygen levels.
While municipal entities have added or are adding sophisticated wastewater plant filtration systems, IEP and Kaiser also have invested in multiple improvements to address effluent treatment.
“We have a dedication to environmental stewardship and sustainability,” says Doug Krapas, IEP environmental manager. “Ecology and EPA are going to adopt more stringent criteria on water quality standards for the state of Washington by the end of this year. We have serious concerns because we’re having difficulties meeting the current standards, which are the most stringent in the country collectively for PCBs and nutrients. We’re trying to develop technology to meet those.”
Dave Moss, county water reclamation manager, says the most advanced ultrafiltration technology available is among $172 million in wastewater plant upgrades made by the county, meeting effluent treatment requirements and DOE nutrient removal standards. Moss adds, “Operating five years, we remove more than 99 percent of what PCBs are sent to us by our customers.”
With renewal updates, Moss questions a proposed daily-load PCBs limit by 2026 of 170 parts per quadrillion measured in dischargers’ effluent. Comparatively, phosphorus limits are in parts per billion, an amount reliably measured, Moss says.
“But PCBs are in parts per quadrillion; that’s one million times lower than parts per billion,” he says. “We can’t measure it, nor can we treat to that. All of us dischargers absolutely will help the river be clean. We’re already seeing a cleaner river.”
Moss adds, “We’re still in debate about what the final standard is for measurement and how you measure that, because technology today is not sophisticated enough to reliably measure something in that small of a concentration.”
Marlene Feist, city of Spokane spokeswoman, also cites millions of dollars toward treatment updates and upcoming projects for “third-level membrane filtration” and an additional primary clarifier among a series of upgrades before 2021. She says its engineers are reviewing pollutant standards in the new permit and making sure the city can meet the new requirements.
“We’re concerned about the PCBs limit,” says Feist. “Should we be putting limits on something that’s well past the permit time?”
Spokane DOE permit manager Pat Hallinan says the proposed effluent limits for PCBs are based on water quality criteria. “We understand, especially for PCBs, if you use test methods that get to really low load levels, those are very expensive to do,” he says. “We try to strike a balance on the data we need versus the cost of monitoring.”
Hallinan adds, “The proposed permit set a water quality-based limit of that 170 parts per quadrillion by 2026, but also conditions that by saying if there’s new data showing that limit should be higher or lower, obviously we would look at that.”
Bud Leber, Kaiser environmental engineering manager, cites dedication to river task force work, and that Kaiser already meets 2021 levels for removing phosphorus, nutrients, and organic compounds.
Regarding PCBs, Kaiser engineers are calling for “best management practices” similar to those of the Delaware River Basin Compact as more effective than numeric effluent limits.
Such a holistic view of an entire body of water considers PCBs a long-term complex problem, Leber says.
“You take enough samples, put together plans for reducing, then continue to monitor,” he says. “Our concern is by jumping to the water quality-based effluent limits, we miss some steps in between.”
Leber says task force members have tracked water quality testing from samples drawn between the outlet of Lake Coeur d’Alene and Nine Mile Dam, at eight locations. This year, the panel sought additional high-cost testing in March, April, May, and June to join two samples this fall. Leber says results for river water quality show compliance with 170 PPQ consistently.
He says an argument suggesting a current need for a PCBs water-quality limit, proposed because of a state advisory for high levels of PCBs in fish, doesn’t consider total fish exposure from sediment and food supply, or fish age.
“We pointed out to Ecology that because the fish advisory is there, that shouldn’t be the basis to say it’s all on your back dischargers to lower the PCBs further,” Leber says. “There are a handful of things that fish are exposed to and one of those is water quality.”
Liberty Lake Sewer & Water District manager BiJay Adams says upcoming permit updates have required the district to make major upgrades, including a recent $11.6 million project to increase capacity and create “a biologic nutrient removal facility.” A current $17.1 million project will add tertiary treatment far advancing compliance to meet limits.
“We have a customer base of only 4,000,” Adams says. The district received state-revolving, low-interest loans issued by DOE, “but our ratepayers are burdened by repayment of loans. Rates have and will continue to increase.”
Despite a U.S. ban in 1979, PCBs as probable human carcinogens don’t readily break down in the environment and remain in materials such as carpeting or concrete pipes.
IEP makes newsprint for U.S. newspapers and high-quality paper products, such as book and office stock. It manufactures using two waste materials: recycled paper—not necessarily all newsprint—and residual wood chips from regional saw mills. In the 1970s, it removed all equipment with PCBs, so it came as a surprise when recent tests found trace amounts in discharge, Krapas says.
“We eventually discovered it was coming from the inks and pigments in the recycled paper product,” he says. “Our company does not produce or generate PCBs; we’re trying to do the environmentally responsible thing by recycling.”
Products have U.S.-allowed bright inks and pigments used in advertising, packaging, and other materials, and which inadvertently contain PCBs. Krapas says IEP and other dischargers are under regulatory scrutiny for inadvertent PCBs that fall under a separate allowance of 50 parts per million of PCBs in the EPA-administered Toxic Substances Control Act.
He adds, “IEP is working with Ecology, EPA, legislators, and tribes trying to lower the value of this allowance. The only one that seems opposed is EPA.”
About 200 chemical processes inadvertently create PCBs, Krapas adds. Meanwhile, single-stream recycling doesn’t offer an efficient way to separate materials for pure post-consumer recycled paper product.
Krapas says IEP has invested millions of dollars in equipment and sophisticated wastewater treatment upgrades to remove pollutants. The company also has spent eight years on a promising algae-based technology for nutrient removal, working with Missoula-based Clearas Water Recovery Inc. A scale-model system is operating at IEP.
The system uses algae to absorb phosphorus and nitrogen and has photosynthesis and microfiltration processes, creating an algae-based dried byproduct with potential uses, such as in biofuels and medical-pharmaceutical products.
Meanwhile, Kaiser has made major water usage reductions, such as converting equipment to air cooling, and says capital spending since 2005 has reached $240 million, including for energy efficiencies. Its wastewater treatment plant will require new updates to remove additional phosphorus because state regulations require “all known and reasonable technology,” Lever says. Plans call for a process with iron to drop more phosphorus out as a solid to go to a landfill.
To meet phosphorus and nutrient levels, Kaiser and IEP also can cooperate to combine discharge limits.
Adriane Borgias, with DOE in Spokane, says the agency is tasked with considering accountability, measurable progress, and reducing sources of PCBs in the water. That includes looking for any decreases in toxins in fish and the river environment, and if not, detailing steps in the next five years.
DOE seeks water quality standards to retain ongoing river uses, she says. She also cites benefits from gathering river water quality data since 2011, and notes that testing in the past two years show PCBs generally at the 170 PPQ criteria.
“We were surprised when we did the testing of the river, and PCBs were generally at or below standards,” Borgias says. “So then the question is why are we talking about meeting requirements? The reason is we have high concentration in the fish.”
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