Report says mill wastewater jeopardizing Snake River fish runs - Potlatch takes issue with fisheries service evaluation

Becky Kramer
Spokesman-Review Staff writer

Spokane, WA - 4/24/03 - Effluent from Potlatch Corp.'s Lewiston pulp mill is jeopardizing the survival of threatened Snake River salmon and steelhead runs, the National Marine Fisheries Service has concluded in a draft biological opinion.

The mill discharges up to 36 million gallons of wastewater -- sometimes as hot as 92 degrees -- daily at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers.

Migrating fish pass through the shallow waters of the confluence as juveniles en route to the ocean, and again as adults returning to spawning streams. They have trouble avoiding the pockets of hot water and pollutants, which create a variety of problems for the fish -- from mortality and disease to delayed migration and lower reproduction rates, NMFS said in the report released this spring.

The Potlatch Corp. disputes the findings in the report, and says refrigerating the effluent could cost the financially struggling mill $25 million. However, environmentalists say the draft opinion confirms what they have long suspected.

"This document clearly shows that fish are being hurt by the Potlatch operation," said Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United. "That intersection of the Snake and Clearwater rivers is a critical junction for salmon and steelhead. All fish that move up the river ... have to pass by that effluent zone."

In 1999, Idaho Rivers, the Idaho Conservation League and the Spokane-based Lands Council sued to force preparation of the opinion before Potlatch received a new wastewater discharge permit. The opinion comes at a time when the 50-year-old pulp mill is struggling to remain competitive, and raises questions about its future. About 1,400 people draw paychecks from the mill, which is Nez Perce County's largest employer.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of issuing a new wastewater discharge permit for the mill. Kristine Koch, EPA permit writer in Seattle, said Wednesday that the agency is already revising discharge limits, based on new information gathered since the first draft of the Potlatch permit was released.

The first draft allowed Potlatch to release 92-degree water for another five years. The revised draft, which could be out by the end of the month, re-examines temperature, compliance time lines and other pollutants, Koch said.

As a result of the draft biological opinion, EPA also will schedule meetings with NMFS to discuss impacts to fish, she said. Snake River runs of sockeye salmon, steelhead, and fall, spring and summer chinook are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

NMFS' "jeopardy" conclusion in the draft biological opinion indicates that the permit, as proposed, could reduce wild salmon and steelhead numbers to the point of limiting chances for survival and recovery. Officials at Boise's NMFS office, who wrote the draft opinion, declined to comment Wednesday.

Potlatch officials disagree with the conclusion, company spokesman Mike Sullivan said.

"The Snake River salmon and steelhead have a 5,000-mile journey," he said. "It really stretches credibility to say that swimming a couple of hundred feet past our discharge point is a major factor in their lifestyle."

Pulp production requires cooking wood chips, which generates hot water. The effluent is treated twice and pumped into settling ponds before it is released into the river. During the winter months, the temperature of the effluent is 60 to 70 degrees, Sullivan said. During August and September, however, the sun can heat water in the shallow ponds up to 92 degrees before it is released into the river.

Potlatch spent $600 million in the early 1990s to upgrade its Lewiston mill, including improvements to reduce the amount of chlorine compounds released into the river. Installing a refrigeration system could cost another $25 million, according to company estimates. In a period of weak pulp markets, those kinds of investments have to be weighed very carefully, Sullivan said.

"That's $25 million that will add absolutely nothing to productivity or quality of the product, and in our view, nothing to the environment," Sullivan said. "There's no empirical scientific data that demonstrates our mill discharge has either resulted in a fish kill or an adverse effect on fish."

According to company calculations, the effluent raises the temperature in the Snake River reservoir behind Lower Granite Dam by only hundreths of a degree. "It's not actually measurable with a thermometer, it's that small," Sullivan said.

The draft biological opinion, however, challenges previous models of mixing zones in the river. At certain times of the year, temperatures in the Snake River reach into the upper 70s, while the Clearwater is less than 60 degrees. Colder water from the Clearwater sinks to the bottom, and the warmer Snake River water floats on top, according to NMFS' draft opinion. A thorough mixing doesn't occur until five to 20 miles downstream.

"The effect of the effluent is negligible downstream, but ... the water temperatures at the confluence can be lethal or near lethal for many days during the summer," the draft said. "The mill contributes significantly to the acute elevation and spread of high temperatures in the area."

Water withdrawals and operation of hydroelectric dams to maximize electrical generation during the winter months also contribute to high temperatures in the river. However, effects on salmon and steelhead are severe enough that all contributors must be considered, the draft opinion said.

In addition to death and disease, high water temperatures lead to migration delays for sockeye and chinook salmon, the draft said. The delays can prevent adults from returning to spawning grounds in time to reproduce successfully. High temperatures also can block smoltification -- the change that allows salmon to survive in saltwater.

The draft said acids in the mill's effluent interact with high temperatures and other compounds to disorient migrating fish, reducing their ability to avoid predators and find food.

"The reasons we've had good returns the last three years has been a pleasant fluke of nature -- good flows in outgoing years, and improved ocean conditions," said Sedivy, of Idaho Rivers United. "Wild fish still aren't self-sustaining. ... We've got to give these fish every break we can."


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