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EPA Changes Permit for Potlatch

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, July 10, 2003

Water quality standards, new modeling
of Snake River temperatures prompt modification

The Environmental Protection Agency says a pending change in Idaho's water quality standards, as well as new modeling of Snake River temperatures prompted it to change a draft wastewater permit for Potlatch Corp. at Lewiston.

The agency recently issued a new draft permit for the company's pulp and paper mill that would not require Potlatch to dramatically cool the 40 million gallons of wastewater it releases each day.

Environmentalists and the Nez Perce Tribe are concerned with the new standards, but the company says they are a significant improvement.

Three years ago, EPA issued Potlatch Corp. a draft permit that would have required the company to cool its waste water in July and August from as high as 93 degrees to 68 degrees.

The company vigorously fought the proposed permit, which was hailed by environmentalists.

That permit stalled in discussions between the EPA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries.

During the delay, the agency ran computer models of the river that indicated it could accept more warm water. Last summer, Potlatch Corp. asked EPA to reconsider the temperature standard in light of changes in Idaho's standards.

"Before, the thought was that the river did not have the assimilative capacity (to accept) any more heat into the water body," said permit writer Kristin Koch at Seattle. "Through our modeling efforts we found that was not true. Even if the river does exceed the temperature standards, it still has the capacity to except heat and not cause further degradation of the water body."

Since 1999 Idaho has also changed it's temperature standards for the Snake River. The tweaking of the standards, which has not yet been approved by EPA, adds language that says when a body of water is warmer than temperature standards because of natural conditions, entities such as Potlatch can continue to release water that causes minor warming.

Under the new standard, releases that warm the river temperature by no more than half a degree near the release site would still be permitted.

Using that formula in the new draft permit Potlatch would be required to reduce the temperature of its waste water from 92 degrees to 89.6 degrees in July, 87.8 degrees in August and 86 degrees in September.

The new permit also allows the company to use a mixing zone to cool the water. That means the temperature is not measured when it comes out of the pipe but instead measured a short distance downstream after it has mixed with river water.

Potlatch is currently operating under its 1992 wastewater permit that has been expired for several years.

The Snake River often exceeds state water quality standards for temperature in the hot summer months. Because the Snake River has salmon and steelhead in it, it has a water quality standard of 68 degrees. Temperatures higher than that are considered harmful salmon and steelhead.

The public comment period on the new draft permit is open until July 21. It could be extended, according to Koch, or a public hearing on the permit could be requested.

Koch has been meeting with officials from the two federal fisheries agencies. Both the Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries must review the permit and ensure it won't harm threatened and endangered salmon, steelhead and bull trout.

A draft analysis by NOAA fisheries indicated the 1999 permit would put fish at risk of extinction. But Koch said EPA now has more complete information for NOAA to consider. John Palmer, Endangered Species Act coordinator for the EPA, noted that much of what NOAA fisheries officials found fault with was a proposed five-year grace period that Potlatch would have to meet the new standards. Under the new draft permit, Potlatch would have only two years to meet the less restrictive standards.

Eric Barker
EPA Changes Permit for Potlatch
Lewiston Tribune, July 10, 2003

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