Potlatch Mill Wants to Turn the Heat Upby Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, June 5, 2001
Lewiston plant seeks an exemption from regulations
Potlatch Corp. is asking the director of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to waive the temperature requirement for water quality in the lower Snake River.
If the request is granted, the company could continue discharging its treated waste water in the river without cooling it first. If approved, the exemption could signal a new way of doing business in Idaho.
"This will set a precedent to how these issues are looked at elsewhere in the state," said Jim Bellatty, regional administrator for the department at Lewiston. "I think it has some far-reaching implications."
The company will have to jump through several environmental hoops if the exemption is to be granted, but resolving the ongoing controversy over its waste water could be key to the pulp and paper mill's long-term future.
Bellatty said the department will analyze the request for an exemption and hopes to make a decision by the end of the month.
The mill discharges some 4 million gallons of treated waste water in the Snake River each day. The temperature of the water can be as high as 92 degrees.
But a draft permit written by the Environmental Protection Agency could change that practice. The agency released a draft of a new National Pollution Discharge and Elimination System permit for the mill last year that would require the waste water to be no more than 68 degrees when it leaves a pipe near the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers.
The strict temperature standard would have to be met during the summer months when the Snake River is often out of compliance with water quality standards for temperature in both Idaho and Washington.
If finalized as written, the permit would require the company to build a $25 million refrigeration plant to cool its waste water. Last year, the company estimated running the plant would cost about $3 million a year. Since then, power prices have skyrocketed.
Potlatch Corp. has vigorously argued that the standard is too strict. It claims the mill's waste water discharge has no real impact on water quality, and that lowering the temperature of the discharge will have no effect on the temperature of the Snake River.
The EPA has been unsympathetic to the arguments. The agency says that the Clean Water Act prevents it from allowing warm water to be discharged into a river that does not meet state water quality standards.
The federal agency sent the permit on to the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for consultation, where it has languished for the past year.
The two federal agencies must review the permit and determine if it will have a negative effect on threatened fish species. Both agencies are expected to release biological opinions on the new permit in August. EPA regional officials will make the final decision.
In a May 11 letter to DEQ water quality administrator David Mabe, Potlatch asked for the exemption or for permission to use a mixing zone to meet the standard. A mixing zone means the company would not have to meet the temperature standard when its water leaves the pipe but could instead use a zone in which the effluent mixes with river water to cool.
However, the Idaho agency only certifies the permit and cannot issue one itself, Bellatty said. That means it cannot grant a mixing zone.
"Our certification is required, but it's not our permit," he said. "We have never had that authority or responsibility. I'm sure there are certain groups of folks that would like us to have that."
Potlatch is one of them. Jerry Myers, environmental manager at the mill, said two pulp and paper mills on the Columbia River in Washington have recently received draft waste water discharge permits without limits for temperature.
"As you might expect their discharges looks a lot like ours in terms of quantity and temperature and interestingly enough neither one has a temperature discharge limit specified," he said.
But Washington does have the authority to grant such a permit. Since Idaho doesn't Potlatch claims industry in the state is at a competitive disadvantage.
If the company can't have a mixing zone, it wants to be exemption from Idaho temperature standards. Under a law passed by the legislature last year, the department's director, Steve Allred could grant the exemption. It would first have to prepare a document proving the action would not negatively impact the river's existing uses and the department would also have to hold a public comment period on the exemption.
Bellatty said the agency has never received an exemption request before and is in the process of analyzing two volumes of technical support data submitted by Potlatch with the request.
"We are going to take a close look and see whether or not this request they have submitted to us has any merit," he said.
But even if the exemption is granted, EPA and the federal fisheries service will have the finale say.
"It's a change to the standard and changes to water quality standards have to be submitted to EPA, approved by EPA and consulted on," said EPA permit writer Carla Fisher at Seattle.
The permit may be putting the cart before the horse, according to Bellatty. The EPA and other federal agencies are currently looking at temperature standards in Oregon, Washington and Idaho and are also working on Total Maximum Daily Load standards for the Columbia River system. The standards determine how many contaminants can enter a body of water without cumulatively violating standards of the Clean Water Act.
"The TMDL to me is the missing link in this whole process and would certainly help us to better understand, at least in holistic terms, what is going to be required here," he said. "Normally we
wouldn't want to have to make a decision like this without having this information."
The TMDL process won't conclude before the end of the year and will likely wrap up after the EPA permit is final.
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