Friday, April 9, 2010

What’s the Spokane TMDL dispute resolution process all about?

Many have heard or read that a “dispute resolution process” is under way on several different issues involving the Department of Ecology’s (Ecology) water quality improvement plan for the Spokane River. The Spokane River/Lake Spokane Dissolved Oxygen Water Quality Improvement Plan, often called the total maximum daily load (TMDL) report, will guide work toward bringing the Spokane River into compliance with water quality standards for dissolved oxygen.

Dispute resolution is an internal process that Ecology’s Water Quality Program uses to review issues that were not resolved during the TMDL development process. The dispute resolution process is initiated after all other attempts to resolve the issue have failed. It is not a formal judicial process like an appeal.

Dispute resolution panel members evaluate information presented by the disputing parties and the responding Ecology representatives, along with written comments by other affected parties. Panel members weigh the evidence presented to them and make a recommendation to the Ecology director, who has the final decision making authority.

Ecology worked for nearly 12 years on the river’s water quality improvement plan with local governments, community leaders, public works professionals, tribes, environmental organizations and more. On Feb. 12, Ecology submitted the plan to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for approval.

The standard practice for developing TMDLs involves partnership between a local community and Ecology staff members. A TMDL study uses peer-reviewed science to determine how best to clean up water pollution problems, and many times the answers are complex and could have multiple alternatives. This can sometimes lead to disagreements.

But as Ecology’s Water Quality Program Manager Kelly Susewind said, “This plan is not perfect. The river has a big pollution problem. Striving for perfection only creates more delays to cleaning up the river. We think our plan is a monumental step toward cleaning up the river.”

On February 26, 2010 Ecology received three letters from Spokane River Dissolved Oxygen TMDL stakeholders asking Ecology to initiate dispute resolution. Ecology’s Water Quality Program has a policy that spells out how the process works. Ecology set up a meeting on April 5, 2010, where the disputing parties presented their evidence and Ecology staff responded.

Stakeholders expressed concerns about the computer model that helped set discharge limits. They expressed concerns about discharge limitations in Idaho and the equity between Idaho and Washington. They also worried about financial impacts of the limitations.

Kelly Susewind pointed out that, “This is not a Washington vs. Idaho thing. There are dischargers across the country that are meeting these kinds of limits.”

These are the overall issues that the panel is looking at during dispute resolution. “This is an honest review by experts in the field who were not involved in the decisions made in the water quality improvement plan,” said Susewind. “They are people who can look at these disputes with fresh eyes and independent minds.”

The panel members were named by the Ecology director. By policy, the panel may consist of (actual names are included):
· Water Quality Program section manager from a different Ecology regional office. (Kevin Fitzpatrick, Northwest Regional Office)
· An Ecology Environmental Assessment Program section manager. (Will Kendra)
· External representative familiar with TMDLs but not involved in the dispute. (Megan White, P.E., Department of Transportation)
· Ecology director’s designee. (Deputy Director Polly Zehm)
· Ecology expert in the subject area of the dispute, but not involved in the specific issue. (Andrew Kolosseus, Water Quality Program, HQ)

Ecology has made every effort to be transparent throughout this dispute process and has posted the dispute resolution correspondence and related information
on the website.

The deadline for the Ecology director’s decision on the dispute outcomes is May 5. We plan to notify all dispute participants of the outcomes and we plan to post decision on this website. TVW will make the the oral presentation videos available on their website and a link will be posted on the dispute resolution website as soon as it is available.

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