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Olympia — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is poised to award water pollution permits in Idaho that cause further environmental degradation of the severely impaired Spokane River as it flows through Washington, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the Sierra Club and Center for Justice. If the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) permits are approved, the Spokane River will continue to exceed maximum pollution limits.

“EPA is supposed to resolve interstate water quality problems, not cause them,” stated Washington PEER Director Sue Gunn. “The Spokane is already one of the most polluted rivers in Washington. EPA is making the job of restoring it to the Clean Water Act ‘fishable and swimmable’ standards that much harder.”

Since Idaho does not have federal delegation to administer the Clean Water Act, all water pollution permits in Idaho are handled by the EPA rather than by the state. In that capacity, EPA has proposed to issue municipal wastewater discharge permits to the cities of Coeur D’Alene, Post Falls and the Hayden Area Regional Sewer Board that would allow discharge of pollutants capable of decreasing dissolved oxygen (by 0.2 mg/L) in the Spokane River without considering pollution from Washington dischargers.

Without adequate oxygen in the water, fish struggle to survive. In addition, the river and Lake Spokane currently suffer from too much phosphorus and other nutrients that act as fertilizers which, in turn, promote algae growth and other aquatic weeds that use up the oxygen in the water when they decompose.
“The Idaho sewage permits are bad science, bad policy and bad law,” said Bonne Beavers, attorney with the Center for Justice based in Spokane that represents Sierra Club. “These permits will not protect the Spokane River and Lake Spokane.”

Under the proposed permits, the Idaho wastewater discharge begins within 14 miles from the Washington border. There are seven major discharges (four in Washington and three in Idaho) that contribute to the pollution in the Spokane River. The controversy is that EPA proposes to set permit limits for Idaho without regard for the cumulative impact of other dischargers on the river.

“Idaho’s pollution doesn’t stop at the state line,” said Rachael Paschal Osborn, executive director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy. “EPA and all other jurisdictions will need to work together to restore the Spokane River. EPA needs to correct the mistake it made with the Idaho sewage permits.”

Because the Washington standards for dissolved oxygen in the river are stricter than those in Idaho, the law requires EPA to meet Washington’s standards. Pollution from both states exceeds the standards set to protect Lake Spokane. The permits allow pollution up to the limits in Idaho but create a water quality violation in Washington as soon as the water crosses the border. Once it crosses the border, the river travels another 62 miles, to the end of Lake Spokane, where it also causes violations of the lake standards.
Public interest organizations are asking EPA to divide the total allowable pollutant load equitably between the two states, as well as cooperate with the ongoing efforts by Washington to set total maximum daily load limits which allow recovery of the Spokane River to a healthy state.

“Something smells bad in the Spokane River and it’s sewage politics,” said John Osborn, a Spokane physician and chair of the Upper Columbia River Group, Sierra Club. “People love the Spokane River and want it cleaned up. With such dramatic growth in the region and increased loading of sewage treatment plants, we will eventually have to stop discharging to the Spokane River.”


Read the PEER letter of protest

Read Sierra Club comments

For more on the Spokane River Project, see

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