POST FALLS - Settling on a cleanup plan for the Spokane River is coming with a hefty price tag for taxpayers of three Idaho agencies that discharge wastewater to the stream.
Post Falls, Coeur d'Alene and Hayden Area Regional Sewer Board have spent more than $800,000 total in the past three years for attorneys, facilitators and consultants in the controversial process.
But the agencies say a standard that is fair to both states is worth fighting for because the plan, as it stands, would hamper economic development in Kootenai County and could nearly double sewer rates.
"The TMDL (total maximum daily load pollution plan) is expensive," said Post Falls City Administrator Eric Keck. "I would explain to our residents that this is a legal and moral challenge worth making as we were dealt with unfairly up front and this unfair waste load allocation to begin with that will ultimately force us to shut the door to further development in a very short time horizon."
The legal process and consulting is just one cost in the TMDL process. Dischargers have started pilot testing new treatment methods to meet stricter standards and face costly plant upgrades.
"We are spending about $11 million on upgrades at the plant which incorporate work for better treatment," said Terry Werner, Post Falls' public works director.
Sid Fredrickson, Coeur d'Alene's wastewater superintendent, said that city has spent about $3.8 million for its pilot programs.
HARSB is also looking at high costs.
"The current draft HARSB Facility Master Plan for meeting the TMDL standards will have HARSB spend about $35 million in new treatment equipment and systems," said Ken Windram, manager. "After construction is completed and the new treatment system is operating, the annual operations and maintenance costs are estimated to be $1 million to $2 million above today's costs of $1.6 million."
Idaho dischargers last month filed a lawsuit alleging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency violated the Clean Water Act in May by approving the 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.
EPA officials have said they don't see any equity issues between dischargers in the two states.
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.
The calls for a reduction in pollution from industrial and municipal pipes by about 80,000 pounds of phosphorus a year, making it one of the most stringent in the nation.
Fredrickson said engineering experts have told him that the new standard can't be met even with the best technology.
"I don't know what the odds are that we will prevail (in the dispute), but they are infinitely better than the 100 percent chance of failure if we accept the TMDL," he said.
EPA will issue new discharge permits in Idaho and Ecology in Washington. The proposed permits were originally expected to be available for public comment this month and issued in early 2011, but the suit will likely delay the process.
Post Falls resident Kristy Reed Johnson, a member of the aquifer protection district board, said the legal fight is worth the money, especially since she believes the plan would hurt the county's ability to prosper.
"We absolutely have to stand our ground," she said, adding that Idaho already has stricter standards than Washington with septic tanks, which pollute the river.
For Idaho, the challenge is a matter of local control over its own destiny, Keck said. He said the issue takes away from funds that could be spent on services such as streets, public safety and parks, but it's too important long term to surrender.
"We are not asking for an advantage over Spokane or Washington," he said. "We are asking for a level playing field."