A river too warm

  Three environmental groups have sued the Environmental Protection Agency over the warm wastewater that flows out of the Potlatch Corp. pulp and paper mill in Lewiston, Idaho. The Lands Council, Idaho Rivers United and the Idaho Conservation League say bull trout, salmon and steelhead can't survive when the Snake River heats up. All the fish are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.


Yet in 1997, without review, the EPA indefinitely extended Potlatch's expired 1992 wastewater permit. The extension allows the mill to continue its daily discharge of more than 35 million gallons into the slack waters behind the Snake's Lower Granite Dam. The permit also allows the wastewater to register up to 24 degrees warmer than the state's 68 degree benchmark for river health, and Mark Solomon of the Lands Council says this may harm fish. Solomon also says the agency violated the Endangered Species Act.


"You can't just extend this permit without finding out whether or not (the effluent) is harmful to the salmon and steelhead," he says.


But Solomon and Potlatch agree that keeping the river's temperature below the state's limit is complicated. Parts of the Snake consistently test hotter than the benchmark in the summer, and dams and irrigation diversions have contributed to the problem.


Potlatch spokesman Frank Carroll says the mill is being unfairly singled out. Some of the Snake's headwater streams, he points out, run warmer than 68 degrees.


"What are they going to do about that?" he says. "Put in a glacier?"


Now, the EPA and the Idaho groups are negotiating a possible out-of-court settlement. If the talks fail, the Idaho Conservation League's John McCarthy says the case will be heard in Seattle's U.S. District Court, where Potlatch is an intervenor in the suit. "This suit is not about Potlatch polluting," Carroll charges. "It's about a political agenda to get rid of four dams on the Snake River."


*Ali Macalady
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