Spokane River is getting cleaner with local task force’s help

Report shows success in reducing PCBs in the watershed

The steady work of a collaborative Spokane River group has led to the removal of more than 8,000 pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the watershed. Environmental trends also indicate that total PCB concentrations are significantly decreasing in most areas of the Spokane River. 

“It is encouraging to see the direct and positive impacts this group has had on the watershed,” said Eastern Region Water Quality Section Manager Adriane Borgias. “When government agencies, private industries and environmental organizations come together with a shared goal, the results benefit the health of our river and community.”

In 2004, the State of Washington listed the Spokane River as impaired for toxics, in particular PCBs and dioxins. The Spokane River Regional Toxics Task Force was formed in 2011 with the goal to develop a comprehensive plan to bring the Spokane River into compliance with water quality standards for PCBs.

PCBs are persistent, lasting for decades in the environment. They are known to bioaccumulate in fish, animals, and people, making even the smallest amounts in a watershed a point of concern.

The most recent evaluation period assessed the Task Force’s work from Jan. 1, 2015, through Dec. 31, 2021, and found the group had made measurable progress toward meeting water quality standards. Measurable progress reflects the success of the Task Force in reducing PCBs in the River and achieving the water quality criteria for PCBs.

“The current evaluation places more emphasis on outcomes that demonstrate toxics reductions, as well as achievement of environmental and public health goals,” Borgias said. “We commend the Task Force for their collaborative work to achieve water quality goals.”

The types of PCB source reductions cover a wide range of prevention, removal, and treatment activities. For example, tertiary membrane filtration upgrades at local wastewater treatment plants have resulted in the physical removal of PCBs from their wastewater. These next-level treatment systems have demonstrated consistent removal of 95 to 99% of PCBs from their facilities.

While additional sampling is needed to verify trends in PCB concentrations in fish tissue, surface-water data collected from 2014 to 2018 indicated that total PCB concentrations were largely decreasing in the Spokane River. Fish sampling efforts are scheduled to occur again this year as part of our toxics monitoring program, which may provide more certainty regarding PCB trends in fish.

What’s next for the Task Force and the Spokane River?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced in January 2022 that it will prepare a PCB Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) water-cleanup plan by Sept. 30, 2024. The TMDL will identify the amount of PCBs that can enter the Spokane River from all sources, including facilities with water quality permits, while still maintaining acceptable water quality.

EPA will gather and analyze technical data, work with tribes and stakeholders, and draft and finalize a TMDL. The TMDL will allocate PCB loads to permittees and other sources to the Spokane River. Once the TMDL is final, we will develop a companion Water Quality Implementation Plan that describes the actions needed to implement the TMDL to achieve state water quality standards.

As a result of EPA’s decision to move forward with a TMDL, the Task Force initiated conversations to conclude activities by June 30, 2023. We will continue to support community efforts to eliminate PCBs and other toxics in the Spokane River. Planning is underway to establish an advisory committee that has a broader, more diverse, outreach.

EPA to host a Spokane River PCBs TMDL Webinar

On Thursday, March 30, from 2:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., join the EPA for a conversation on development of the Spokane River PCBs TMDL. This webinar will start with a 30-minute presentation on progress to date and next steps, then transition to an hour of discussion on challenges and opportunities related to the project.

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