In November 2016, the Spokane River water quality standard for a bio-accumulative toxin called “polychlorinated biphenyls” (PCBs) was re-evaluated by the EPA under the Clean Water Act and strengthened from its previous standard of 170 parts per quadrillion (picograms or ppq) to 7 ppq. This was done to protect people who eat fish in the state because this pollution accumulates in fish that people of Washington catch and eat. Understandably, when this rigorous standard was announced, five of the largest polluters of the Spokane River (Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District, Kaiser Aluminum, Inland Empire Paper Co., Spokane County Regional Water Reclamation Facility, and City of Spokane’s Riverside Park Water Reclamation Facility) recognized the challenge of meeting that standard given their current discharge rates. Consequently, there have been two reactions from polluters and regulating agencies. First has been an effort, in concert with a Trump EPA, to rescind the water quality standard rule at the federal level. And second, dischargers have applied to the Washington Department of Ecology for discharger variances.
What are variances? How do they work and should we support them?
At its most basic level, a variance is an exception with a grace period given to a pollution discharger to meet pollution limits. There are two types of variances, water body variances and discharger variances. Discharger variances are given to dischargers who are unable to meet the water quality standard in the given timeframe, so they apply for alternative standards while they work toward that goal. This offers a time-limited framework for a specific pollutant or level of discharge that is not the water quality standard, while ensuring progress is still being made toward the ultimate state water quality standard. To receive a variance, the discharger must apply and be approved by both the EPA at the federal level, and Washington Department of Ecology. Applications must outline what each discharger’s current Highest Attainable Condition of pollution discharge is and that they can currently meet, and demonstrate the need for said variance. To demonstrate such a need, there are several factors to be considered, such as naturally-occurring pollutants or conditions that prevent dischargers from attaining the standard, human-caused situations that prevent attainment, and/or resultant widespread negative economic and social impacts. In the case of the Spokane River, all of the applicants have claimed that some or all of these conditions apply to their situation.
Deep concerns over the use of variances:
We have several deep concerns over variances and what they may mean for the Spokane River and Washington waters. The discharger variances allow pollution dischargers to define the standard they are to meet—and they are asking for variances ranging from 566 ppq to 993 ppq—though in at least two cases, the specified levels are not even included in the applications. These are levels more than four times the previous state standard of 170 ppq, let alone the new one of 7 ppq. This would also be the first ever variance granted to a bio-accumulative toxin (that is a toxin that continues to build up in fish and living organisms in the river). Nothing in these variance plans will maintain that at any point dischargers dumping upwards of 1,000 ppq of PCBs into the Spokane River will reach the imposed standard of 7 ppq by creating their own standards and timelines. The applications have all claimed that there is no technology currently available to achieve such a standard of PCB discharge, and thus are requesting up to 20 years just to sort out other potential options and hope new technology becomes available by the time their grace period is up.
Though such a system may seem like a simple solution, allowing flexibility while the ultimate goal is still being worked toward, discharger variances introduce the risk of never arriving at the final water quality standard. Timeframes for these variance applications are almost all 20 years (with the exception of Kaiser at a little over 13 years). This situation is a red flag in the context that for the past thirty years, regulatory agencies have stalled and given industry leniency on the issue of PCB pollution from their pipe in our river. Our concern is that this is more of the same. Discharger variances are supposed to be reviewed every five years, but we know that the pulp and paper industry, Boeing, King County, Spokane County, and Greater Spokane Incorporated, to name a few, will work at every turn to prevent any real pressure from being applied by the regulatory agencies. The water quality standard rescind effort proves this. We feel that discharger variances are simply a new chapter in the story of stall on toxics in our basin. They are a clever new response to higher water quality standards promulgated under the Obama Administration developed to protect public health.
The request by these dischargers for variances puts the health and safety of the Spokane River, as well as those dependent upon the river and its downstream influences, at risk. Not only that, but it puts economic priorities over the public’s clean water and healthy fish. This is a dark step back toward the “bad old days” when industry ran roughshod over public health and clean water.
We are asking the Washington Department of Ecology to deny any discharger variance applications from dischargers and develop a conventional cleanup plan called a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). This plan develops pollution-loading numbers that will determine hard limits of pollution to be dumped by any discharger into your river. There has never been a variance for PCB toxins approved in the United States, there has never even been a variance for a pollutant related to human health, and our state would be the first ever to give this free pass. If variances are approved in the Spokane River Basin, then they will surely become the poster child for the rest of Washington and potentially the waters of the United States for weakening human health criteria. Please stay tuned for next steps. We expect a draft Environmental Impact Statement to be published soon and there will be an opportunity to comment on variance applications.