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News / Northwest

Legislature looks to clean Spokane River PCBs with new proposal to regulate the chemicals

By Laurel Demkovich, The Spokesman-Review
Published: February 1, 2023, 7:44am

OLYMPIA — A bipartisan effort to rid the Spokane River of harmful chemicals is the latest step in the decadeslong quest to clean Washington’s waterways.

Sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, the bill would require the Department of Ecology to petition the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reassess its regulations on PCBs, with the hopes that the agency would eliminate PCBs in consumer products. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are carcinogenic chemicals that can stem from manufacturing.

It would also restrict paints and printing inks with PCBs by June 1, 2025, making Washington the first state to do so.

“This makes a small, but really meaningful step forward in keeping the Spokane River clean,” Billig said.

The proposal has 19 co-sponsors in the Senate, including Eastern Washington Sens. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley; Shelly Short, R-Addy; and Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. The companion in the state House of Representatives is sponsored by Spokane Democrat Timm Ormsby, also with 19 co-sponsors, including Spokane-area Reps. Jacquelin Maycumber, R-Republic; Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane; Suzanne Schmidt, R-Spokane Valley; and Mike Volz, R-Spokane.

Padden said he has signed onto the bill because it would protect the environment while also helping some local businesses, such as Inland Empire Paper in Millwood.

The standards are so strict, Padden said, calling them “almost impossible” to meet.

The proposal has support from environmentalists and paper companies, including Inland Empire Paper, but has some pushback from business groups and the paint industry.

The federal standard for PCBs allows more of them than Washington’s clean water standard. The federal toxic substances control act limits PCBs to 50 parts per million, while Washington’s water quality standard currently only allows for 7 parts per quadrillion of PCBs.

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Jerry White, at Spokane Riverkeeper, told the Senate Environmental, Energy and Technology Committee last week that the water quality standard protects the entire state, and this bill would harmonize the discrepancy between the standards and begin to cut PCBs out at the source.

The discrepancy has been a concern particularly for Inland Empire Paper Company and other paper recycling companies who deposit into the Spokane River.

Melissa Gombosky, lobbying for Inland Empire Paper at the Senate committee hearing last week, said the company has some of the most modern paper recycling and water treatment technology, but they still cannot remove all of the PCBs that come from the inks and pigments used in the printed products they recycle.

Doug Krapas, environmental manager at Inland Empire Paper, said their plant successfully destroys 99% of the PCBs in the products they recycle.

“It’s important to emphasize that we do not manufacture PCBs,” he said. “We’re trying to do the environmentally responsible thing by recycling that paper.”

To try to solve the issue on their end would be extremely expensive and difficult, Krapas said.

Rob Lindsay, Spokane County Environmental Services Administrator, said PCBs are relatively lightweight and go right through the treatment technology, which makes it very difficult to remove them.

Billig’s bill would require Ecology to ask the EPA to up their standards for PCBs in products.

It would also require Ecology to prohibit the products in Washington, something no other state has done.

PCB’s are not intentionally added to consumer products, as many were banned in the 1970s, Katrina Lassiter, program manager for Ecology’s hazardous waste and toxic reduction program, told a Senate committee last week. PCBs can still be present as a byproduct of some manufacturing processes.

One type of PCB associated with yellow pigments shows up higher in water than the standards they are trying to meet, Krapas said.

Gombosky said it’s possible to switch to non-PCB products, noting the state Department of Transportation recently switched to a different yellow paint for roads.

Putting the Department of Ecology in charge of petitioning and regulating these products brought on concerns from opponents of the bill.

Riaz Zaman, of the American Coatings Association, testified against the bill last week. Zaman said the Department of Ecology already determined it couldn’t regulate these products under current federal law, and the association supported that position.

Requiring Ecology to undergo this regulatory process could result in unnecessary legal costs for paint manufacturers and the state, Zaman said.

The Association of Washington Business and the American Chemistry Council also had concerns about Ecology having the power to regulate these products, but lobbyists for both groups said they may be able to fully support the bill if its scope was limited.

Lassiter said the department has not had other instances where they were preempted from regulating products based on federal law but went about regulating them anyway.

Additionally, Zaman said PCBs in paints are not a major contributor to water contamination, and he was hoping the Department of Ecology can conduct an analysis to further look into PCBs in waterways before regulating products.

“Without further analysis of products, this bill will not significantly reduce PCB contamination in this state,” Zaman told a Senate panel.

Lassiter said the department strongly supports the efforts to clean up waterways, but petitioning the EPA to do so would not provide a quick answer.

It could, however, provide an opportunity for Ecology to work with other states and the EPA in creating future regulations, Lassiter said, though she acknowledged the department has not found evidence of other states petitioning EPA in this way successfully.