GU Law keeps Spokane River safe

Trash strangles a tree along the bank of the Spokane River. Gonzaga Law School’s Environmental Law Clinic is giving the city of Spokane two months to clean up the trash and pollutants clogging the river.

The Gonzaga University Environmental Law Clinic submitted a 60-day notice letter on Dec. 1 to the City of Spokane concerning the large amount of pollution within the Spokane River.

The notice letter addresses the city's violations of the Phase II Permit of the Federal Clean Water Act. Studies from 2004 and 2007 show that the pollution level of water in the Spokane River exceeds that of Water Quality Standards.

The Gonzaga University Environmental Law Clinic is representing the Spokane Riverkeeper, Rick Eichstaedt. The Riverkeeper program started in New York with the Hudson River in 1966. Eichstaedt's  role is centered on the surveillance of a major body of water and he is to be the "eyes, ears and voice for the river," said director of the Gonzaga Environmental Law Clinic, Mike Chappell. This position is distributed through the Center for Justice. 

The Environmental Law Clinic is a non-profit law firm that emerged within the Gonzaga Law School this past fall. Chappell described the importance of the notice letter as the first step toward action.

 "The effect of filing a complaint is that litigation in federal court begins and the two sides are required to comply with the requirements set forth by the court," Chappell said.

One of the more serious chemical pollution problems is because of the discharge of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, into the Spokane River. PCBs are industrial compounds that were manufactured and used in heavy industrial machinery until they were banned in 1979. Chappell said these chemicals acted as lubricants and transformers.

PCBs have been shown to cause cancer and a number of other serious health conditions on the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems.

Chappell explained the detrimental effects of PCBs as being an adherent, which makes it almost insoluble in water because they attach to sediment and particles that become suspended in the water. The result affects the aquatic life of the river, which poses a threat to their life and contaminates the wildlife for humans to eat. This attachment to other organisms after attaching to sediment is known as bioconcentration, Chaplell said.

Both second year law students, Jennifer Murdock and Elizabeth Dunfee, contributed the most to the drafting of the notice letter.

Murdock, who did most of the research and worked on several drafts of the notice letter, explained the value of the case to both the Gonzaga and Spokane community.

"The Spokane River is a great asset to Spokane and Gonzaga. The notice letter has informed the City that Gonzaga and the community care about the River and is willing to take a stand to protect and clean up this asset."

"Hopefully the next step will be entering settlement and negotiations: getting together to decide what will be effective," Dunfee said.

The river isn't the only case the Law Clinic is handling. "The clinic has issued one other 60-day notice letter to the Federal Highway Administration on behalf of Kootenai Environmental Alliance and Idaho Conservation League," Chappell said. "We also represented several residents on Long Lake/Lake Spokane and KEA on comments before the Department of Ecology on Ecology's draft Spokane River cleanup plan for phosphorous."

"We are also partnering with Spokane Community College to implement storm water monitoring and sampling in and around the Spokane River," Chappell said.

The Environmental Law Clinic is moving forward with the case.

"We are drafting the complaint, but we are in the midst of talks with the City of Spokane and may not file it immediately after expiration of the 60 days, if talks are ongoing and moving toward settlement of the action," Chappell said.

 "We are thus far pleased with the city's response," Chappell said.  "They appear to be taking it seriously and moving toward a solution."


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