COEUR d'ALENE - Just as millions in new technology is being deployed to remove phosphorus from Idaho's stretch of the Spokane River, new wastewater permits are requiring cities to clean up even more.
"In my 42 years in wastewater, I've learned that there is always - and always will be - a pollutant du jour," said Sid Fredrickson, wastewater superintendent for the city of Coeur d'Alene.
"Welcome to my simplified world of waste management."
The cities of Coeur d'Alene and Post Falls, along with the Hayden Area Regional Sewer Board, received new wastewater discharge permits this year. One of the requirements in the new permits is to participate in the Spokane River Regional Toxics Task Force.
The toxics task force was formed by Spokane dischargers in 2012 as an alternative to establishing formal limits for Polychlorinated Biphenyls, or PCBs, under the Clean Water Act.
The task force must show "measurable progress" on removing PCBs from the Spokane River or the Washington Department of Ecology will begin the formal process to establish a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for PCBs in the river.
A formal TMDL could be a problem because Idaho, Washington and the Spokane Tribe all have differing ideas for how much of the pollutant should be allowed in wastewater discharge.
"The truth is nobody knows how that would come out in the courts," said John Beacham, environmental manager for the city of Post Falls. "So they are saying 'let's do what we can to clean up the river, and avoid the courts.'"
Beacham said the phosphorus TMDL process took more than 10 years to complete, and cost a lot of money.
The three Idaho dischargers have invested a combined $100 million in wastewater treatment technology to reach one of the lowest phosphorus limits in the country.
If the courts were to decide to use the limits proposed by the Spokane Tribe, it would be the lowest PCB limit in the nation, and would be extremely difficult to measure.
Fredrickson said in 1992 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that an upstream state is required to meet a downstream state's water quality standard.
The Spokane Tribe is the farthest downstream, and it proposes 1.3 picograms per liter, said Ken Windram, Hayden Area Regional Sewer Board.
"That's like one drop in a body of water the size of Lake Coeur d'Alene," Windram said.
He said the empty vessels that they use to send samples to the lab contain between 30 and 70 picograms of PCBs.
"That's the challenge we are facing," he said. "These numbers are getting so small and complicated."
Further complicating matters is the fact that the Toxic Substance Control Act still allows 50 parts per million to be used in manufacturing processes, Fredrickson said.
"That 800 billion times more than the standard they want to see in the river," he said, adding there are still some PCBs that haven't been discovered.
"Theoretically, there are 209 forms of PCBs, and they have only discovered 135 of them," he said, adding only some of them are toxic.
He said PCBs are used in cosmetics such as lipstick, motor oil, inks, dyes and many other manufactured products.
"There has not been enough data to really know how much is in the river," he said, adding they are now starting to test for them. "Preliminary numbers say Idaho is extremely low, but the final numbers aren't available yet."
None of the dischargers foresee any immediate rate increases like the increases that were needed to clean up phosphorus, but that could change in the not-to-distant future.
Fredrickson said Idaho dischargers are now conducting quarterly sampling of their own wastewater and surface water on the Spokane River.
"Each sample costs $1,100 and each test run is 12 samples," Fredrickson said. "That gets into big bucks really quick. It's not going to be cheap."
Fredrickson said the city of Coeur d'Alene alone has budgeted $100,000 to develop a Toxics Management Plan, which is due to the EPA on June 1, 2015.
He will be meeting with other dischargers during the next two months to develop the plan.
"I guess the good news in all of this is that our tertiary treatment system will be able to remove most of the PCBs," he said, adding the city just started a pilot project to treat one million gallons a day through that system.
Once that is running, he said, he will eventually bring on another four million gallons a day.
The SRRTTF plans to hold a public workshop to discuss progress made in 2014. It will be held in Spokane Valley on Jan. 13-14 at CenterPlace Regional Event Center 2426 N. Discovery Place. More information can be found online at: www.srrttf.org.