U.S. Water News Online
SPOKANE, Wash. -- Overflows of untreated sewage into the
Spokane River happen too frequently during the dry summer months,
when residents are more likely to be recreating in the water, the
Sierra Club alleges.
In a letter to Spokane Mayor Dennis Hession, the conservation
group's local chapter threatened to sue unless the city reviews and
fixes its continuing dry weather sewage overflow discharges.
"A responsible city does not expose its citizens to raw sewage,"
said lawyer Rachael Paschal Osborn, coordinator of the Spokane River
Project of the Sierra Club's Upper Columbia River Group. "With this
action, Sierra Club intends that the city will stop risking public
The letter gives the city 60 days to comply with the federal Clean
Water Act, which regulates discharges into the river, or face a
City officials had no immediate comment on the letter.
City records indicate combined sewage outflows have sent almost
200,000 gallons of raw sewage into the river during dry weather the
past two years. That potentially represents more than 20 violations
of its federal clean water permits.
Under the Clean Water Act, the city could be fined more than
$30,000 a day if it dumps untreated sewage in violation of federal
"We believe it would be vastly cheaper for the city to fix the
system than to pay the fines," said Rick Eichstaedt, a Center for
Justice attorney representing the Sierra Club. "The city's violations
Eichstaedt called for better monitoring, better maintenance of
sewer lines and better public education about possible sewage spills.
Officials said improvements to the city wastewater system already
have reduced the number of sewage discharges considerably.
An unknown amount of sewage flowed into the river after a pipe
blockage diverted the untreated effluent into an outfall pipe near
Downriver Golf Course.
City crews still don't know when the spill began or how much
sewage was released, said Dave Mandyke, acting director of Spokane
Public Works and Utilities, whose agency must submit a report to the
state Department of Ecology.
Some preliminary estimates have said that sewage could have been
flowing for several days, perhaps weeks.
Most discharges are legal because they occur during rainstorms,
when the city's wastewater treatment plant is overwhelmed. Dry
weather discharges violate the city's National Pollution Discharge
Elimination System permit.
The city's failure to prevent the dry weather discharges is
compounded by the Ecology Department's failure to enforce penalties,
The last time Spokane faced formal sanctions was in 1999, when
Ecology fined the city $15,000 for an August dry weather discharge
that dumped sewage into the river for three days.
If the city responds quickly and corrects the problem, it won't be
fined, Ecology spokeswoman Jani Gilbert said.
"Our interest isn't to fine them," she said. "Our interest is in
stopping the pollution."
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