The Washington Department of Ecology has been working with dischargers along the Spokane River to meet the human health criteria standards (fish consumption rule) for water quality and reduce polychlorinated biphenyls, (PCBs). However, Ecology’s work has been complicated by the federal government’s efforts to roll back environmental protections. In May, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reversed itself, replacing water quality standards it adopted in 2016 with different standards, over the objections of Ecology and tribes.
The new standards are scheduled to take effect June 12, and Ecology has legally challenged EPA’s roll back. EPA’s roll back creates regulatory uncertainty that adversely impacts Ecology’s efforts to work with dischargers to meet the PCBs human health criteria.
Based on five wastewater and industrial dischargers’ applications, Ecology started a rulemaking process to develop variances for compliance with the PCBs human health criteria. Variances are a time-limited, regulatory tool under the Clean Water Act, used to meet the water quality standards. Each variance includes a PCB reduction plan and schedule to steadily reduce dischargers’ PCB output through technology improvements and other control measures.
Since the variances were applied for and developed using the 2016 PCB standards, which will no longer be valid after June 12, Ecology is unable to move forward with the variance applications and cannot officially release the formal draft rule language. While the legal challenge to EPA’s roll back moves forward, Ecology is seeking feedback on preliminary plans to reduce PCBs in the river. Releasing the variance plans as preliminary drafts allows the public more time to review and offer feedback. It better positions Ecology to resume our formal rulemaking after the court rules on the legal challenge.
All five permitted dischargers applied for a variance to the 2016 standard:
- Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District – Water Reclamation Facility
- Kaiser Aluminum Washington LLC – Trentwood
- Inland Empire Paper Company
- Spokane County Regional Water Reclamation Facility
- City of Spokane – Riverside Park Water Reclamation Facility
As proposed, each discharger would have their own variance, reflecting the distinct nature of their current technology and the materials coming into their facilities.
None of the five dischargers produces PCBs. Rather, the dischargers redistribute PCBs that enter wastewater from historic sources and products like inks, caulk, and paint. Because these facilities are the last stop before the chemicals reach the river, they are responsible for reducing the PCBs that they discharge.
This is the first time Ecology has received applications for variances to comply with the water quality standards. Variance requirements are evaluated every five years, and are not a “free pass” from meeting water quality standards. Facilities must maintain the highest attainable condition throughout the process to ensure they are making consistent progress toward achieving water quality standards.
Visit Ecology’s rulemaking page to review and comment on preliminary materials through July 25, 2020:
- Preliminary Rule language
- Implementation Plan
- State Technical Support Document
- Portions of Draft Environmental Impact Statement