State won’t fund phosphorus research
in Spokane River
Becky Kramer The Spokesman-Review
August 2, 2012
The Washington Department of Ecology has opted not to pay for additional research by a University of Washington professor whose earlier work suggested that not all of the phosphorus discharged into the Spokane River leads to rampant algae growth and poor water quality.
Michael T. Brett, the professor, had strong words about the agency’s recent decision not to contribute to a second study costing $75,000.
“I think Ecology is aggressively trying to put the kibosh on the science,” said Brett, an environmental scientist in UW’s engineering department. “… Because the results are complicating their policy, they’re trying to make the science go away.”
Brett said that he and his fellow researchers believe they are close to discovering why some types of phosphorus promote algae growth while others don’t. The work could have ramifications for cities, Spokane County and companies that discharge treated wastewater into the Spokane River. The dischargers face multimillion-dollar plant upgrades to meet strict new limits aimed at reducing the phosphorus flowing into the river by 90 percent.
Department of Ecology officials, however, said while Brett’s research is academically valuable, the science hasn’t advanced enough to relax phosphorus limits in discharge permits. A second study isn’t likely to change that, said David Moore, Ecology’s watershed unit supervisor.
“Bioavailability (of phosphorus) may be a good tool in the future, but the science isn’t there to support it,” he said. “The science would need to be overwhelming for us to make that change.”
Ecology, dischargers split bill for pilot study
The Ecology Department paid for about half of an earlier, $110,000 pilot study by Brett, which tested effluent from six sewage treatment plants that discharge into the river. Dischargers picked up the rest of the tab.
Brett said the pilot results, released last year, indicated that some forms of phosphorus don’t spur the algae growth that leads to low oxygen levels and water-quality problems in the reservoir behind Long Lake Dam.
“For some reason, the algae and the bacteria just can’t use it,” he said. “The analogy I use is sugar-free gum. It has a lot of energy in it, but our bodies don’t have the enzymes to use the carbon” in the gum.
Sid Frederickson, Coeur d’Alene’s wastewater utilities superintendent, said he’s disappointed that Ecology won’t ante up for additional research.
“He (Brett) has every right to be upset, and so do all the rest of us who participated in the funding of round one,” Frederickson said.
“Do we have enough data right now to go out and rewrite discharge permits? No, I don’t think we do … (But) I think the research should be funded as expeditiously as possible. If the permit limits can be relaxed, that will be a great boon to ratepayers.” (...more)
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"Trying to make the science go away," that's troubling. And this comes from an impeccably qualified scientist, not the right-wing fringe. Maybe this research would be useful in understanding the 'phosphorous problem' in Lake Whatcom.
It's not ethical or constructive for government to impose heavier regulatory burdens on citizens without the willingness to prove scientifically that a problem exists that needs to be mitigated, can be mitigated (practically or theoretically), or that the burden will even accomplish anything.
Why is this powerful agency turning a blind eye to better science? It certainly raises questions about the department's agenda. Are they working to help us or to hobble us unnecessarily? Ecology has a huge budget, and $75 thousand is a miniscule amount to spend compared to what they blow on other things.