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Spokane River Advocates Push Again For PCB Cleanup Plan

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

A decade-long battle over removing toxic chemicals from the Spokane River may continue in a Seattle courtroom.

Members of the group Spokane River Team are asking a federal judge to push government regulators to limit the amount of PCBs that can be discharged into the river.Much recent environmental work has been done to improve the quality of the Spokane River. That includes the city’s work to install huge storage basins to collect stormwater so it can be treated before it’s released back into the river.

But Spokane River Team members say environmental agencies are dragging their feet on PCB pollution.  

PCBs are polychlorinated biphenyls, chemicals that had a wide variety of uses from the 1930s through the 1970s, until they were found to be carcinogenic. They were banned in the U.S. in the late 1970s, but are still allowed in other countries.

PCBs have been detected for decades in the Spokane River, including in the flesh of fish that swim there. This is Kathy Dixon from Spokane River Team.

“PCB pollution, unlike sewage, is invisible. We are here today to make pollution visible so that when little kids go down to the river, like my grandma and my mom and my sister and me, they really do encounter a beautiful natural phenomenon, not a dump for PCB pollutants," Dixon told reporters in Riverfront Park on Tuesday.

The chemicals were discharged by local sewage treatment plants and companies such as Kaiser Aluminum and Inland Empire Paper.  

In 2011, environmental advocates sued. They wanted agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Washington Department of Ecology to write cleanup plans that rid the river of PCBs. In 2015, Judge Barbara Rothstein ruled for them, but six years later, river advocates claim there’s still no plan.

A Seattle law firm representing Dixon’s group is asking Rothstein to intervene and require the EPA to write a cleanup plan she ordered them to create six years ago. No word yet on whether she’ll hear the case.

In response, an Ecology spokeswoman released this statement: "We would emphasize that, in the past decade, a great deal of progress has been made in identifying and reducing PCBs from the Spokane River watershed. The data shows that progress is being made and PCB concentrations are going down. We plan to continue working with local stakeholders to address sources of PCBs going into the river. We’re committed to improving the health of the Spokane River and its fish for the communities that depend on it."