Spokane River through downtown Post Falls

 At last night’s City Council meeting, and without any public debate whatsoever, the Post Falls City Council voted unanimously to file a lawsuit over the Spokane River cleanup plan. The long-awaited and controversial TMDL (total maximum daily load) setting a pollution budget for phosphorous was set by the Washington Department of Ecology some months ago, and pollution permits for Idaho dischargers into the Spokane River were expected to be issued by EPA later this summer.

 What happens ultimately is anyone’s guess, but with Post Falls heading to the courtroom, what likely happens next is that everyone else will head to the courtroom too.

 A fundamental characteristic of a TMDL is that there is a sort of zero-sum nature to it. If more pollution is allowed from one pollution source, then the other sources of pollution will need to be reduced accordingly. With Post Falls heading off to court, each of the parties will need to go to court too, to protect their own interests. A judge will now need to sort out the highly technical arguments of not only Post Falls, but municipal dischargers in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, industrial dischargers in Spokane, environmental groups, and regulators.

 Even if the lawsuit is successful, what will Post Falls win? The very most a judge will be able to do is simply send the TMDL back to the Washington Department of Ecology – the agency that wrote it – to be re-worked. After some 12 years of this work, the likelihood that there will be any major changes ranges from slim to none. Indeed, there is no circumstance whatsoever in which any of the Spokane River dischargers will be relieved of expensive upgrades to their pollution controls.

 At this point, money spent on lawyers is money down the drain. Money spent on wastewater engineers will at least give some return on investment. Meanwhile, until this all gets sorted out and the cleanup gets underway, toxic algae and oxygen depletion will continue to choke the river.