Under the Clean Water Act, all of the waters of the United States are assigned Water Quality Standards (WQS) to ensure that those waterways are safely fishable and swimmable.  In the Spokane River, those standards are being threatened, putting the health and safety of our river and all its users at risk. Pollution dischargers in the Spokane River claim that with the existing technology and treatment plans, they cannot currently reach the 7 parts per quadrillion (ppq) required by the state water quality standard for polychlorinated biphenyls. But the waters are polluted, the fish are polluted, and we need to find a way to work toward the goal of a clean river regardless of how difficult.

Under the Clean Water Act, if the pollution of a water body exceeds the legal WQS, a Total Daily Maximum Load (TMDL) cleanup plan is developed for the water body. A TMDL cleanup plan is the customary legal pathway for bringing a polluted water body into compliance with the water quality standards. Among other clean up plans, a TMDL creates waste load allocations for all pollution dischargers with hard and fast limits that end up in discharge permits.

In a TMDL plan, existing pollutant loads are determined for dischargers, and then load reductions needed to meet those standards are calculated. In essence, this is a “pollution budget” that contains the pollution cap. Then individual percentages of pollution are allocated in the TMDL to dischargers through their permits. Other sources get allocations or percentage caps as well. This allows polluters to be governed by absolute limits in their permits and then they can collectively reach a water quality standard, while also acknowledging that it may be more feasible for some than others, and thereby delegating standards to reflect that sliding scale. This can be looked at like splitting pieces of the pie. Some dischargers get larger slices than others, but the overall pie (total loading budget) remains the same size. This option disallows polluters to set their own standards, and puts their loading budget into their pollution discharge permit, maintaining a hard line for pollution limits that cannot be crossed. This path ensures that there is accountability to the public and we do not go for another 25 years before we begin to address this tough situation.

Recently though, EPA has provided an avenue that is an alternative to a TMDL. This is called a discharger or water body “variance” and would lead to permits with much more lax discharge limits. Variances (supported by the SRRTTF) are an option currently being considered and promoted by Ecology for five major pollution dischargers into the Spokane River. In their applications, these dischargers are asking to be given an extension on meeting the 7ppq standard, and, in the meantime, propose their own achievable water quality standards and the timelines for reaching them.  The timelines in the variance applications are near to or exceeding 20 years. In our view, variances, laden with flaws and opportunities for cutting corners, are simply stalling your right to clean water.

The current approach at work since 2012, is the Spokane River Regional Toxics Task Force (SRRTTF). The SRRTTF is comprised of a multitude of actors representing pollution discharge permit holders, government agencies, and members representing the community and environmental interests. This group is tasked with working collaboratively to develop a comprehensive plan to bring the Spokane River into compliance with applicable water quality standards for PCBs. While some very good base-line studies have been undertaken through the SRRTTF, it seems the SRRTTF has not made much headway at reducing pollution. Seven years later we stand, still unable to name exactly who should be reducing what amount and by when, while major dischargers continue to dump thousands of ppq of toxic PCBs into the Spokane River - in part because we have no ultimate loading limit for toxins in the river. The SRRTTF was created in place of a TMDL or variance, and now in 2019, permit holders are applying for variances to meet the stringent 7 ppq WQS.  However, in a variance it is unclear how dischargers would be held most accountable, and how a variance would ultimately ensure compliance with 7 pqq. (clean water).  In our view, the TMDL clean-up plan is the most effective way to work - the work of the SRRTTF could be folded into a TMDL.  In fact, the EPA has always envisioned that the SRRTTF would be folded into a TMDL.

It should be noted that a draft TMDL plan was written for PCBs in 2006, but never approved or published. We feel it is now time to roll the SRRTTF into a proper legal TMDL. The initial work of the SRRTTF could be put to work as an implementation group that works on the tough non point sources while the TMDL gives stringent numbers and schedules to the dischargers inside their permits. One way to look at this is that a TMDL gives the river a pollution diet. the plan lays out where we want to be in ten years, and then limit the inputs from every source until we get there…. A TMDL holds promise while variances are a path to a non-arrival.