COEUR d'ALENE - The federal government is requiring three Idaho cities to join a group of Spokane municipalities and businesses in reducing a toxin in the Spokane River.
Six Spokane entities that discharge wastewater recently signed an agreement to reduce the presence of Polychlorinated Biphenyls, or PCBs, in the river.
Now the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has required three Idaho wastewater dischargers to sign on: The cities of Coeur d'Alene and Post Falls, and the Hayden Area Regional Sewer Board.
Tom Eaton, Washington director of EPA, said last week during the Spokane River Forum in Coeur d'Alene that new discharge permits require Kootenai County dischargers to join the Spokane River Regional Toxics Task Force.
"The new permits do require those (Idaho) cities to participate in the task force," Eaton said, adding the agency will require the cities to monitor their influent and effluent along with some in-river monitoring for PCBs. "Washington is revisiting the MOA (memorandum of agreement), so EPA and Idaho dischargers can sign on."
The task force was formed by businesses and government agencies that discharge wastewater, environmental groups and regulating agencies in Spokane a couple of years ago as an alternative to setting formal federal limits for PCBs on Washington's stretch of the Spokane River.
As a result, the task force was required to create a toxics management plan to identify and remove sources of PCBs in the Spokane watershed. Now Idaho will be required to follow suit.
"They will be required to do a toxics management plan similar to what the Washington permits require," Eaton said, adding the Idaho dischargers will be required to submit those plans by June and begin implementing them by December 2015.
EPA will make sure the toxics management plans are "robust" and determine if the implementation is actually occurring.
"There is no numerical measure in the permits," he said. "It's more a matter of 'is there evidence that they are following through to identify sources and eliminate them.'"
Eaton said there was insufficient data to determine the numerical level of PCBs at which Idaho dischargers should be regulated, so the agency used a similar regulatory approach to Washington Department of Ecology's.
The EPA used a reference to "measurable progress" in the Idaho permits, but it is not a compliance measure like it is in Spokane, which he acknowledged is the subject of some contention.
"I will submit that even though we are using different words and different language, the goals are essentially the same," he said. "The end point is are we working toward identifying and reducing sources of PCBs."
Adriane Borgias, from WDOE, said using an adaptive management process for the Spokane dischargers is an alternative to a formal Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) process under the Clean Water Act.
She told the forum attendees that if the toxics management plans are implemented and show some "measurable progress," the agency will allow it to continue.
However, if the dischargers are not meeting the agency's expectations, WDOE has reserved the right to take further regulatory action, including initiating a formal TMDL action on that segment of the river.
Ted Knight of the Spokane Tribe said the collaborative approach doesn't go far enough. He said the goal is to develop a comprehensive plan to bring the river into compliance with the applicable standards for PCBs.
In his opinion, he said, the toxics management plan doesn't do that. The tribe and the Sierra Club have filed suit along with the Sierra Club to force the state to do a TMDL for PCBs. That suit is still pending.
Dan Redline, regional administrator for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, said his agency supports the approach Washington is using and it will participate, but his department has other priorities on which to focus its resources.
Redline said PCBs are not listed as a contaminant of concern in Idaho's section of the Spokane River, but metals and nutrients are listed, so he has an obligation to focus his resources on those.
"If we take Idaho's tongue-in-cheek perspective, do we meet our goals and water quality standards?" he asked. "We can say we are already done."
Redline said the problem arises with the new standards that are being proposed.
"Measuring this particular pollutant at these levels is very difficult," he said. "Determining if you are in or out of compliance is going to be difficult - and determining if there is measurable progress is going to be difficult."
He said IDEQ will support what is happening downstream from Idaho, but he isn't sure how much Idaho will be able to help reduce PCB levels in Spokane.
He said the levels that Spokane has to reach are so "ultra-sensitive" that he is not certain they will be able to measure success.
"It will be real difficult to determine if there is a positive signal or what," he said. "We agree with the approach, but we have to manage expectations. What is the final measure of our success?"