River polluters could face near-zero PCB limits; plus, the fire department plans a hiring spree

click to enlarge Political swings affect efforts to clean the Spokane River. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO

Young Kwak photo

Political swings affect efforts to clean the Spokane River.

The seesaw of water quality standards for Washington state has tilted back toward more protective pollutant limits from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Several years ago, Washington’s self-proposed limits were found inadequate to protect groups whose diets rely heavily on fish that bioaccumulate toxins. Because of that, the EPA put stricter standards in place for dozens of pollutants in 2016.

Under the Trump administration, the EPA said Washington could return to the less protective standards it had proposed.

By that point, however, even Washington agencies didn’t want to use the less protective standards. The state and environmental groups sued the EPA to maintain stricter limits on pollutants such as the PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) that plague the Spokane River and other water bodies throughout the state. Now it appears the EPA will again support the more protective, science-based standards it put forward in 2016, with public hearings scheduled for May.

The move could impact state permits that Washington is in the middle of issuing for five wastewater dischargers on the Spokane River. The dischargers each asked for “variances” to exceed even the less restrictive limits as they work to reduce the pollution they put into the river.

Their permits include a limit of 170 parts per quadrillion for PCBs at “end of pipe,” but could be reopened to match the stricter standard once EPA finalizes its process, says Stephanie May, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Ecology.

The stricter standard of 7 parts per quadrillion for PCBs is a near-zero limit that advocates say is necessary to drive innovation in water cleanup and protect the health of the river, fish and people.

Spokane Riverkeeper Jerry White says the regulatory teeter-totter is a sign of the “politicization” of what should be science-based standards.

“If you set a low bar, we’ve watched this over and over, it’s really easy for nothing to happen,” White says. “I feel like this tight new water quality standard will continue to tension the system so we can prevent this foot dragging.” (SAMANTHA WOHLFEIL)

HIRESTORM ’22

For years, the Spokane City Council has been aggravated about the fire department’s overtime spending. Last year, the fire department paid roughly $9 million in overtime, as COVID-19 and a brutal wildfire season magnified the already thorny issue.

Last year, 20 firefighters each logged over 1,000 hours of overtime — effectively working a half-time job on top of their full-time job.

An independent overtime study, paid for by the city budget two years ago, is scheduled to be completed this fall. But the Spokane Fire Department already knows one of the biggest problems: They don’t have enough firefighters on staff.

“Currently as we sit today, we have 38 vacant firefighter positions,” Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said at Monday’s Public Safety and Community Health Committee Meeting. The vaccine mandate had exacerbated the staffing shortage, and if voters don’t vote to maintain the fire levy in the April 26 special election — worth $13 million over the next six years — that problem could get even worse. The levy funds approximately 80 positions.

But Schaeffer told the committee the department is aiming to recruit up to 40 new firefighters by early 2023. That could either mean running two 20-person academies or one supersized fire academy. Schaeffer says that they already have 129 candidates who have applied, but cautions that there’s no guarantee that will be enough to get to 40 recruits.

“We are not going to drop our standards or settle,” Schaeffer says.

Spokane Fire Union President Randy Marler says if they get enough qualified recruits, they can re-establish a relief pool, a way to reduce overtime across the department by assigning some employees to cover openings created by sick leave and vacations. Ideally, it pays for itself.

“As long as we can get the 40, we can put at least a few people on relief on each shift,” Marler says. (DANIEL WALTERS) ♦

Article Source: Inlander