SPOKANE, Wash. - The Pollution Control Hearings Board heard closing arguments Thursday in a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy to challenge the pollution discharge permit issued to Spokane County's new water sewage treatment plant, also known as the Regional Water Reclamation Facility.
It's no secret the Spokane River is polluted with a chemical called polychlorinated biphenyl or PCBs. PCBs can be found items such as electrical transformers, paint additives, adhesives, inks and can even be found in dyes used in items like shampoo.
Over time, the PCBs collect in the Spokane River and end up in the fish. The Spokane Tribe still eats a lot of fish out of the river, which can end up causing health problems.
"PCBs are a threat to the developing nervous system and also a cause of cancers, so it's particularly a risk for pregnant women and children," said John Osborn, Chair Of Upper Columbia River Group for the Sierra Club."
In 2012, the Spokane Regional Health District issues a Spokane River Fish Advisory that is still in effect because of the chemicals found in the Spokane River.
"This river is not fishable and I think there are probably some people who avoid swimming in this river because of the pollution levels," Osborn said.
Fish advisory officials say some fish can only be consumed once or twice a week, while others can only be eaten once a month. There is even a portion of the river near the Idaho border where the fish cannot be eaten at all because it is unsafe, which is part of the basis for the lawsuit.
"It is not legal for the state to issue a permit to the Spokane County Sewage Treatment Plant to add more pollution to this already polluted river," Osborn said.
However, the Department of Ecology disagrees.
"We feel like with this plant is coming on board as one of the most efficient in the nation and it's actually doing a better job of removing PCBs, so we feel like it's the right choice to issue the permit and clean up the river rather than talk about it for another five years," said Department of Ecology Communications Manager Brook Beeler.
Currently, there are five dischargers that empty into the Spokane River. However, the Spokane River Regional Toxics Task Force says the dischargers are only responsible for 8% of the PCBs that end up in the water.
"It's not only coming form waste water treatments plants, but it's coming from storm water and other sources and the Spokane River is notoriously known for high levels of PCBs," Beeler said.
The task force says 57% of the chemicals that end up in the Spokane River are coming from unknown sources.
As for the new facility, the Department of Ecology says it is waste water that would end up in the river no matter what.
"The Spokane County Water Reclamation Facility is actually treating eight million gallons a day, that used to go to the city of Spokane's Waste Water Treatment Facility, so essentially we're just moving that source to a different plant," Beeler said. "This plant actually removes PCBs at a better rate."
However, there is no data at this time to prove whether or not the new facility is doing a better job.
Closing arguments in the lawsuit were heard Thursday morning concerning the permit. However, it could be one to two months before a final decision is made.