PCBs, a world-wide and local conundrum, the focus of Spokane River Toxics Workshop
By Jani Gilbert
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) aren’t going away, at least not for a long time; they are everywhere no matter what the land use, and they are difficult and expensive to deal with. Although manufacturing of PCBs in the United States was banned in 1979, this legacy pollutant still haunts the environment and is directly linked to health concerns. What’s being done nationally and what to do about their presence in the Spokane River was the focus of this workshop.
The Spokane River Toxics Workshop was held at the Gonzaga Law School, June, 5-6, with speakers from around the country.
In Spokane, studies have shown that the community—dischargers and everyone else—has to reduce PCBs by more than 95 percent in order to meet tribal standards downstream from Spokane.
“I’m an academician, so I can’t speak to regulation,” said Dr. Lisa Rodenburg, an associate professor from Rutgers University, “but I will say that you’re never going to get to the standards. But that’s no excuse to stop trying. We can make things better.”
Don Martin of the Environmental Protection Agency in Coeur d’Alene agreed. “We are working hard with everyone, conservation groups, dischargers, the state. Yes, it’s going to be a difficult effort, but we have to stay with it,” he said.
We’ve already made some progress, as researchers with the Washington Department of Ecology have seen a declining trend. Dale Norton from the Department of Ecology’s Environmental Assessment Program took the audience of local officials, scientists and government researchers through a 25-year history of PCB research on the Spokane River. “The Spokane River is the most thoroughly assessed river in the state of Washington,” he said.
One of the confounding aspects about doing PCB research in the Spokane River is the low level of solids and lack of sediment deposits in the upper river, he said. PCBs cling to sediments, making it easier to find and therefore reduce them.
Despite that challenge, Norton said we know that PCBs were consistently high in fish from the Spokane River during the 1980s. “They have declined since the 1990s, but studies in 2003 through 2007 show the concentrations are still above the state standards,” Norton said. “I would suspect that concentrations have continued to decline due to ongoing source reduction efforts.”
Feel better? Not so fast. Dr. Bruce Hope of CH2MHill, who works mostly in Oregon’s Willamette basin, gave the perspective that 1.5 million metric tons of PCBs were produced before commercial production was banned in the U.S. in 1977. Of that, 50 percent was emitted into the air. And he stressed that PCBs are still being produced, used and emitted in developing countries. Most PCBs found in Washington, though, drift east from Asia, according to Dr. Hope. Others feel that we don’t have conclusive evidence of that.
From that global perspective, Dr. Hope moved to regional and local sources saying that forests store and sequester airborne PCBs in the canopy and on the forest floor. Forest fires release the PCBs into the atmosphere for further travel and a change in where they deposit themselves. Other local sources are burn barrels, electrical fires, leaking transformers and stormwater.
Then there’s snow. Snow is very effective at removing particles from the atmosphere that have PCBs attached. Dr. Hope described that in the summer heat, the snow melts and releases PCBs to surface waters and the contamination also volatilizes into the atmosphere to continue their travels.
Several speakers, from Oregon, Seattle, New Jersey, Delaware and Iowa discussed their “hot spots” and solutions. For example, both Seattle and Portland found their highest levels in industrial areas and adjacent residential areas. The biggest source? Metal and auto shredders in both cities. And in Seattle another large source was the “Old Brewery” with 20,000 parts per million showing up in the building’s exterior paint.
Solutions are site specific and all have plusses and minuses. Testing and removing contaminated building materials, cleaning sewer and stormwater lines and passive treatment such as grassy swales are a few treatment technologies that have been used in different areas. But more active treatment solutions are systems with names like chemical and electro-coagulation, enhanced sand filtration and ballasted sedimentation. Without defining those terms here, the most effective options can be cost-prohibitive and use a lot of power.
Is all the general research and effort “worth it?” All of the speakers agreed that reducing PCBs is well worth the effort. “This illustrates the fact that it is more cost effective to prevent the initial release of these types of compounds rather than try to clean them up after the fact,” said Dale Norton.
The key to ongoing, effective work is getting everybody working together for a common goal, using common methods. That’s tricky… In fact Dr. Rodenburg cited this quote from Peter S. Adler Ph.D, president of the Keystone Center, who has worked extensively on water management and resource planning problems “…it is difficult to imagine a political system as complicated and as fragmented as that used for protecting and managing water resources in the U.S.”
Workshop sponsors included the cities of Spokane and Post Falls, Spokane County, Spokane Riverkeeper, the Hayden Area School Board, Inland Empire Paper, Kaiser Aluminum, and the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District.