While it may not be apparent, the river that we love, the river that’s vital to our health and economy – needs your help. As your Riverkeepers, it is our job and our privilege to protect and defend your river so that it’s clean and safe for all to enjoy. Here’s a little background on why the river is polluted, why this pollution matters, and some easy steps that we want you to take to keep toxic pollution out of the Spokane River.
How did our river get polluted?
Metals: Silver mining in the upper watershed began in the 1880s near what is now the Bunker Hill Silver Mine. The Bunker Hill smelter was once the largest smelting facility in the world. It’s been reported that more silver was removed and processed from this area than anywhere on earth. In the early days, the methods used for extracting silver were primitive, and the refuse (tailings) from mining were dumped downhill and sometimes directly into the Coeur d’Alene River (an important tributary to the Spokane River), and into other waterways. For most of the time that this occurred, there were no environmental laws to prevent these practices, and the detrimental effects of metals in rivers were largely unknown. Smelting, mining, and dumping of tailings also released high levels of sulfur dioxide, lead, and other metals, ultimately releasing hundreds of tons of arsenic, cadmium, lead, and zinc. So much was discharged that the water in creeks reportedly turned gray. This went on for decades, and the polluting metals are still measured in sediments for more than 100 miles downstream of the mines. In 1983, the Bunker Hill smelter was listed as a Superfund Cleanup site by the EPA, with the dubious distinction of being the second largest contaminated site in the nation. Since then, millions of dollars have been spent to remediate the pollution by removing contaminated topsoil from nearby neighborhoods, paving roads, capping contaminated areas, and habitat restoration. Progress has been made, but there is still a lot of work to do.
PCBs: Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are synthetic chemicals which are no longer intentionally produced in the United States, but are extremely stable and long lived in the environment. They were widely used in electrical transformers manufactured between 1929 and 1977, and have also been used in coolants, lubricants in transformers, capacitors, and other electrical equipment. Their importance in industrial processes cannot be overstated: they don't burn easily and are excellent insulators. Products made before 1977 that typically contained PCBs include old fluorescent lighting fixtures, capacitors, transformers, and hydraulic oils. The manufacture of PCBs was stopped in the U.S. in 1977 because they cause harmful health effects and bioaccumulate in aquatic ecosystems. Despite being banned, several types are still produced inadvertently in the manufacture of some pigments and chemicals. These show up in industrial and municipal waste water. Additionally, the older types now banned, still show up in sediments of the Spokane River as well as some ground water that feeds the river. There are enough measurable levels of PCBs that these sections are listed on the state’s most polluted waters list for PCBs. PCBs are now found ubiquitously throughout the environment, and are found in a surprising amount of products that we all use every day: colored newsprint, clothing made with brightly pigmented dyes, road paint, certain pigmented soaps, deicers, motor oils, and more.
Stormwater: When it rains, the water that flows off our city, roads, roofs, sidewalks and all impervious surfaces in the watershed is called stormwater. Stormwater is almost always routed via underground pipes directly to the nearest waterway, without any treatment. Stormwater is a major source of pollution in all urban areas of Washington, not just in Spokane. The major pollutants in stormwater include dirt, bacteria, oils, metals, nutrients, and in Spokane, PCBs. The reason that PCBs are present in stormwater are complex. Some of the PCBs come from road paint, oils dripped from cars, deicers, and the like. Other PCBs come from our homes – because we use and consume products that contain PCBs, such as colored toothpaste, motor oils, newsprint, herbicides pigmented clothing and soaps. It’s important to note that although PCBs are no longer manufactured, they are still present in these products as a result of the manufacturing process. When these products come into contact with stormwater, they can elevate the PCB concentration in stormwater runoff. The City of Spokane is helping – they’re in the midst of a massive effort to build huge storage tanks that will contain stormwater in some areas, so that it can be treated for PCBs and other contaminants before it is discharged to the river.
Why this pollution matters:
Heavy metals from over 100 years of upstream mining have traveled downstream and have settled in the sediments of downstream rivers and lakes, including the Spokane River. Children playing on the riverside can be exposed if they come into contact with river sand and sediment – lead and arsenic can cause learning problems, nervous system damage, and other ailments. Elevated levels of lead are present in the tissues of fish from the Spokane River. Metals are toxic to aquatic life, and extremely low levels of some metals can adversely affect some fish species, as well as their food sources.
PCBs are still present in the environmental and are contained in many common products that all of us use. They can cause cancer, skin rashes, nervous and reproductive system disorders, as well as developmental and learning problems for children. Because they bioaccumulate in the tissues of fish, animals, and humans, the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) publishes fish advisories. These advisories prescribe limits to the number and type of fish eaten from certain areas, as well as describe special precautions to take when cooking and cleaning fish.
The City of Spokane has over 700 miles of storm drains and pipes that convey stormwater away from developed, impervious areas. There are 130 stormwater outfalls to the Spokane River. Some of the stormwater is separated from sewage, and is discharged directly to waterways. Some is collected and discharged to groundwater and infiltration facilities. About one-third of the City’s stormwater is collected and piped to the Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP). During large rain events, the capacity of the WWTP is unable to keep up with the incoming flow, causing combined discharge (overflow) of stormwater and sewage directly to the river, without treatment. Untreated sewage mixed with stormwater can contain harmful pathogens, including bacteria and viruses. Although the City tries very hard to avoid these overflows, they still happen in certain circumstances.
The Spokane Riverkeeper is a part of a larger body of stakeholders who make up the Spokane Regional Toxics Task Force that are studying the sources of PCBs the pathways to the river and how we remove them. Link This effort is revealing some interesting results and has a comprehensive plan to clean up the river.
How you can help: The most important thing you can do is to love your river and educate yourself about the issues described here. The more you know, the more you can help. Talk to your neighbors, and attend public events to learn more. Specific steps you can take include:
· Avoid purchasing brightly pigmented products that contain PCBs. A document that lists these products can be found here. http://srrttf.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Revised-Prduct-Testing-Report-7-21-15.pdf
· Never dump anything into storm drains. Only clean rain down the drain!
· Always recycle used oil and antifreeze, and dispose of household hazardous wastes properly at a regional disposal site. Household hazardous waste includes paints, solvents, used oil, antifreeze, batteries, pesticides and fluorescent bulbs. Disposal locations are here. https://www.spokanecounty.org/2013/Regional-Disposal-Locations-Hours-Fees
· If you see a pollution incident, take notes and photos. Report the pollution by calling (509)329 3400. Take photos, and be prepared to describe the location of the incident.
· Become a river advocate. Volunteer for the Spokane Riverkeeper here: https://www.spokaneriverkeeper.org/. We are looking for opportunities to talk to neighborhood groups and youth about toxic pollution, so please contact us if you have such an opportunity. Please join us!