POST FALLS - Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has been enlisted to help shake the bi-state Spokane River cleanup plan controversy.
Otter and Post Falls Mayor Clay Larkin met behind closed doors on Wednesday to discuss how Idaho agencies that discharge wastewater to the river can avoid a costly court battle with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
When the leaders emerged, both declined to discuss details on possible resolution methods, citing pending litigation, but said talks of resolution are happening.
"There's a new technology that we've become aware of that we think may solve the problem," Otter said.
Otter said he also mentioned several other possibilities for help.
"But if we get this out in the public I'm afraid what will happen is that people will start making decisions about each of those possible solutions," said Otter, adding that it's still too early to say whether any of the options will materialize or work.
At a meeting in Liberty Lake this week on the plan, it was revealed that an advisory committee consisting of dischargers on both sides of the border, environmental groups, the EPA, Ecology and Idaho Department of Environmental Quality would be formed to work toward implementation.
Otter said he pledged to Larkin that the state is in the fight with the dischargers.
"I wanted to reinforce to him that all of the assets at the state level are available to him," Otter said.
Larkin said the city doesn't want the issue to fester further in the interest of saving taxpayers' money.
"We'd like to come to a meeting of the minds and have this resolved without having to go to court, but we also have to protect our interests," Larkin said.
Post Falls, Coeur d'Alene and the Hayden Area Regional Sewer Board are the Idaho agencies that discharge to the river. They have spent more than $800,000 in the past three years in fees for attorneys, facilitators and consultants alone. That doesn't include technology pilot test costs and plant upgrades.
Idaho dischargers last month filed a lawsuit alleging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency violated the Clean Water Act in May by approving the cleanup plan developed by Washington Ecology.
The complaint states the plan is the product of an "unlawful, biased and scientifically flawed decision-making process" and that Ecology rushed the plan to avoid political accountability in Washington and transferred a disproportionate burden of cleaning Washington's water bodies onto Idaho citizens.
But Kelly Susewind, Ecology's water quality manager, said there are several ways to evaluate fairness.
"We elected to apply the same monthly average limit to each facility - we think this is fair," Susewind said. "There is a maximum amount of pollution the river can accept and continue to be the river we all want. It's a very small amount to divvy up. And, increasing the amount anyone is allowed means someone else needs to reduce the amount they are allowed. We feel that a rebalancing of pollution loads can be addressed as we implement the TMDL (total maximum daily load).
"Every day we wait to get started with implementation is a day the river and lake continue to suffer."
The plan, which has been in the works for about 12 years, seeks to reduce phosphorous, which leads to algae growth and the depletion of oxygen from water that fish need to live. Lake Spokane downstream has been the biggest concern.
Susewind said the pending complaint is not delaying the discharge permit process.
The EPA will issue its draft Idaho discharge permits for public review in spring 2011. Washington permits will be out for public review in the next week.