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Proposal Would Ease Limits On PCBs In Spokane River

Washington Department of Health

Washington’s Department of Ecology is looking for ways to meet water quality standards for chemicals called PCBs in the Spokane River.

Currently the agency is proposing to allow for so-called “pollution variance” to allow for temporary lower standards for the chemicals from dischargers in the region.

That action is taking some heat from area environmentalists.

Department of Ecology officials want to enact the variances to allow the five major dischargers some leeway in trying to meet the current standard of 7 parts per quadrillion for the PCB chemicals, which have been shown to pose health risks in the form of birth defects and cancers.

“In this case it’s essentially realizing not all the technologies exist yet to reach the Clean Water Act standard for PCBs, and so were going to recognize that and say OK you don’t have to reach that today, but year by year, step by step , we're going to see those improvements, that get us to that standard,” said Ecology spokeswoman Colleen Keltz.

Keltz says the plan is to initially loosen the standards a bit, then ramp them up at five-year intervals until the dischargers can meet them, once the technology is in place to allow for that reduction.

Tom Soeldner from the Upper Columbia River group of the Sierra Club says it’s ironic the state is fighting proposed loosening of environmental rules on a federal level, while Ecology is at the same time loosening the PCB standards.

“While Ecology has supported Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s lawsuit against the Trump administration to lower water quality standards in Washington state, at the same time, they have started a process which we believe weakens the law that protects water quality in the Spokane River,” he said. 

Jerry White, the Riverkeeper for the Spokane River, says while Ecology would still be the agency signing off on the new standards, the variances allow the dischargers themselves to dictate the standards that need to be met.

“Our concern is the discharger variances open up the possibility for a 20-year loosening where we never get back to the ultimate high standard that the EPA promulgated for Washington State,” White said.

Ecology says it is open to taking public input on their proposed loosening of the PCB standard. Friday, the agency announced it would be lengthening the public comment period on the plan from a July 2 deadline to July 11.

You can make comments at the Washington Department of Ecology website.


Steve was part of the Spokane Public Radio family for many years before he came on air in 1999. His wife, Laurie, produced Radio Ethiopia in the late 1980s through the '90s, and Steve used to “lurk in the shadowy world” of Weekend SPR. Steve has done various on air shifts at the station, including nearly 15 years as the local Morning Edition host. Currently, he is the voice of local weather and news during All Things Considerd, writing, editing, producing and/or delivering newscasts and features for both KPBX and KSFC. Aside from SPR, Steve ,who lives in the country, enjoys gardening, chickens, playing and listening to music, astronomy, photography, sports cars and camping.