River cleanup riles residents

EPA opts out of local meeting to discuss issue

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POST FALLS - Citizens have noticed what cleaning up the Spokane River - as the feds want - could mean to their sewer bills and growth.

They think it stinks.

Craig Wilcox, Todd Christensen and Len Crosby have started a grassroots effort called Citizens for Affordable Sewer Rates.

The group, the Post Falls Chamber of Commerce and some local businesses had organized a meeting for Sept. 28 in Post Falls to discuss implications of a proposed river cleanup plan.

"Nothing has been more important to me in my life so far," said Wilcox, a local businessman who leads the Local Issues Committee of the Post Falls Chamber of Commerce. "We're looking at double or triple sewer bills in the next year to three years. When you consider that a building moratorium could be put on the cities, there's serious consequences on a long-term basis and the immediate future."

The group had a commitment from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is drafting new permits for local agencies that discharge wastewater into the river, to attend the meeting. But on Friday night - moments before a Press deadline for a story on the meeting - the EPA opted out of the meeting.

"Due to some new information about the upcoming meeting ... and additional discussion here at EPA, we have decided to decline the invitation to meet ... and instead focus our energy on the draft permits we are preparing to propose for public comment in the spring of 2012," Mark MacIntyre, EPA spokesman, wrote in an email to the Press.

The announcement surprised Wilcox when he learned about the cancellation from a reporter. He said he had met with local EPA staff to discuss the agenda on Friday and, as of late in the day, he believed the meeting was still a go.

Wilcox said he'll have to evaluate the situation this week and determine whether to still hold an upcoming meeting without the EPA.

He said he's frustrated about EPA's decision as the meeting has been in the works for several weeks and he had secured business sponsors.

"This is about a government agency having free reign to do whatever it wants, regardless of what the community things," Wilcox said. "They're backing out because they don't want to be accountable to the public. If they're backing out, that only reaffirms our suspicions that they don't care about what we have to say."

MacIntyre said the nature, scope and scale of the meeting changed since the agency first agreed to meet.

"We originally agreed to attend a small, informal gathering of two committees of the Coeur d'Alene and Post Falls Chambers of Commerce, to give a brief update on the permit process and answer a few questions," MacIntyre wrote. "The size and scope of the proposed meeting has changed dramatically and taken the form of a larger public meeting which we feel is premature since the permits have not yet been officially proposed for public review."

MacIntyre said there will be ample opportunities for the public to offer their thoughts and comments on the permits once they are proposed.

"We are proud of our track record of openness and transparency in the effort to protect the Spokane River over the past three years, holding dozens of meetings on both sides of the state line," he wrote.

MacIntyre said the EPA has heard the concerns of area residents, civic leaders and elected officials.

"Based on those conversations and our experience in crafting permits that protect water quality, we have already agreed to make adjustments to the draft permits to reduce community and commercial hardship, while safeguarding the Spokane River and Lake Spokane," he wrote. "We look forward to working with area communities as the permits are proposed and invite all comments and suggestions on how the permits can better protect the river in a way that works for all of us."

But if the EPA has already eased the standard in the draft permits, Wilcox and others don't know about it.

"If they would come to the meeting, they could explain that," he said.

Wilcox said when he reviewed Post Falls' study on the possible impacts of the plan - that it may mean a $70 million annual hit to the city's gross domestic product - he decided to take action and get all the players together for a meeting.

In addition to the EPA, the Washington Department of Ecology, which issues discharge permits downstream, was planning to attend.

"It makes sense because we have been working with Idaho on water quality issues for years because we share a region, a large watershed," said Jani Gilbert, spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Ecology. "Idaho DEQ had a big interest in the development of Washington's water quality improvement plan, and, as the downstream state, we have an interest in Idaho's (plan)."

The cleanup plans have been in the works for 13 years.

Post Falls, the Hayden Area Regional Sewer Board and Coeur d'Alene last year filed a lawsuit alleging the EPA violated the Clean Water Act by approving the plan developed by Washington Ecology.

The lawsuit has been stayed while the Idaho permits are being drafted. The EPA plans to release the proposed new permits for public comment in spring 2012.

Some permits have been issued in Washington; others are outstanding.

The plan calls for a reduction in pollution from industrial and municipal pipes by approximately 80,000 pounds of phosphorus a year, making it one of the most stringent in the nation. Dischargers will have up to 10 years to comply with new discharge limits in the plan, with extension up to 20 years possible under some circumstances.

The plan seeks to reduce phosphorous, which leads to algae growth and the depletion of oxygen from water that fish need to live.

Idaho dischargers say they support cleanup efforts and have been testing new technologies for several years and implementing costly plant upgrades.

But the lawsuit states the waste load allocations between Idaho and Washington is inequitable based on the proportionate share of the land mass in the region, proportionate amount of water contributed to the Lake Spokane reservoir at the end of the river in Washington and proportionate share of the projected 2027 population. Dischargers say the plan is also unattainable.

David Croxton of the EPA said his agency doesn't believe the plan is unreasonable.

"The levels we're asking for in the permits are very attainable and have been done in multiple locations," Croxton said. "It won't have that high of an economic impact (as the grassroots group and cities fear)."

Wilcox said his group also doesn't object to cleaning up the river, but he doesn't believe the permits will be achievable and practical.

"We'd like the EPA to give us examples of who is living up to those standards," he said.

Eric Keck, Post Falls city administrator, said dischargers share the concerns of Citizens for Affordable Sewer Rates.

"We are trying to work through litigation as well as negotiations to stave this off," Keck said. "We certainly do not want to be in a position in the future where we have to tell business and industry that we cannot issue them a permit to construct a new facility because we cannot treat any further wastewater."

Keck said it's a complex matter that most people may not think about until their sewer rates climb.

"The toilet is flushed, the water goes down the drain, and it becomes an issue that is out of sight and out of mind," he said.

Christensen, former Coeur d'Alene Chamber of Commerce president and CEO who is involved in the wastewater debate as a citizen, said he hopes residents will take an interest in the situation.

"We've met with all four members of our congressional delegation, and their message is the regulatory environment is out of control," he said. "We want affordable sewer rates."

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