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Environmentalists Sue Over Potlatch Discharges

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, September 25, 2002

Groups say federal agencies are failing to review Lewiston permit

Frustrated over a two-year delay in issuing a permit to Potlatch Corp. for its daily discharge of wastewater in the Snake River, three environmental groups have filed a lawsuit against several federal agencies.

The Idaho Conservation League and Idaho Rivers United, both of Boise, and the Spokane-based Lands Council filed suit in Seattle Tuesday. The environmentalists claim the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have moved too slowly in their mandated consultations with the Environmental Protection Agency regarding a new wastewater discharge permit for the company's mill at Lewiston.

"I think the Environmental Protection Agency has tried to do the right thing here, but for some reason National Marine Fisheries and the Fish and Wildlife Service have really dropped the ball," said Bill Sedivy of Idaho Rivers United.

"It's kind of been one excuse after another for not having this finished."

The Potlatch pulp and paper mill discharges up to 40 million gallons of treated wastewater into the Snake River near its confluence with the Clearwater River each day. The water can be as warm as 92 degrees.

The company's permit to discharge the water expired in 1997. In 1999, the environmental groups sued the EPA, saying it failed to consult with the fisheries services as required by the Endangered Species Act to ensure the wastewater was not harming threatened and endangered salmon, steelhead and bull trout.

A year later, the groups agreed to shelve their lawsuit when EPA officials began work on a new permit.

A draft of that permit set a strict temperature standard for the company that would limit the temperature of summertime discharges to 68 degrees.

Potlatch officials said the new standard would require them to build a chilling plant to cool the water, and estimated the cost of such a plant at $25 million.

The draft was sent to officials at the federal fisheries services nearly two years ago, where it has languished since.

Officials from both agencies said Tuesday they did not know when their consultation would be completed. Toni Davidson of the Fish and Wildlife Service in Spokane said she and her counterpart from the fisheries service were waiting for new scientific information.

David Arthaud of National Marine Fisheries in Boise did not return a phone message requesting comment.

Mike Bussell, deputy director of the EPA's office of water in Seattle, said his agency has been working with the fisheries services to speed the process and is anxious to complete the permit.

"We are trying to stay in contact with them as much as we can and provide them as much information as we can and purvey to them the importance of getting this permit issued," he said.

Bussell also said a reworking of Idaho's water quality standards could be slowing the process. The state is in the process of issuing new water quality standards for temperature that would take into account natural conditions that cause some standards to be exceeded.

The groups said Tuesday they have waited long enough.

"We finally had to file suit," said Justin Hayes of Idaho Conservation League. "We are not suing Potlatch at all. Our goal here is to ensure the water quality permit comes out in a timely manner."

Officials from Potlatch said they are aware of the suit but are not in a position to comment since they are not named as defendants.

The suit asks U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour to find the EPA and the federal fisheries agencies in violation of the Endangered Species Act and to order them to complete the consultations within 30 days of that finding.

Bussell said if the agencies find the permit is adequate to protect the listed fish, a permit would likely be issued soon after. But should the agencies require changes in the permit the EPA would likely have to release another draft permit and go through a formal public comment period.

Eric Barker
Environmentalists Sue Over Potlatch Discharges
Lewiston Tribune, September 25, 2002

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