Toxics, Metals and the Spokane River

Chemicals are a growing human health and environmental concern across the country. Today, more than 80,000 chemicals are in use. Until proven harmful, their use and disposal is not regulated by government.  Some chemicals are toxic and are regulated to assure their safe use. In Washington, for instance, almost 30 million pounds of regulated chemical releases were reported in 2004.

Valuing the Spokane River

The Spokane River is 111 miles long, originating at the outlet of Lake Coeur d’Alene in Idaho and stretching to its confluence with Lake Roosevelt (the Upper Columbia River) in Washington. The river serves as the region’s “signature” as it passes through urban, suburban, and rural landscapes.

Tribal communities have used the river for at least 9,000 years to meet a variety of subsistence and cultural needs. The Coeur d’Alene Tribe at the headwaters and Spokane Tribe of Indians at the confluence continue this long history.

Today, over half a million people live in the area and see the changing currents. In a 2007 poll of Washington residents living near the river, 75 percent said they go to the river to hike, bike, swim, boat, or fish at least once a year. Over 33 percent visit the river at least 10 times a year. As river interactions increase, the public’s desire for greater stewardship deepens.

Those connecting with the river also know that during the industrial age this became a “working river” to meet municipal and industrial needs. These activities and the legacy of upstream mining anchor a belief by 34 percent of those polled that water quality is either “poor” or “not so good”. And while 19 percent say they fish in the river, only 36 percent say they believe the fish are safe to eat.

Currently, wastewater treatment facilities, industry, municipal stormwater systems, dams, and new development continue to be part of the river’s landscape. The public is committed to striking a balance among these uses and other interests such as recreation and aesthetics. Indeed, 78 percent of those polled say it is very important that the Spokane River be protected and/or cleaned up. One of the issues that requires attention in order to have a safe, beautiful, clean river is the presence of harmful chemicals and heavy metals in the water and river sediments. In the new millennium, the Spokane community needs strong leadership and broad commitment to address this issue.

Chemicals and Heavy Metals in our Environment

Chemicals are a growing human health and environmental concern across the country. Today, more than 80,000 chemicals are in use. Until proven harmful, their use and disposal is not regulated by government.

Some chemicals are toxic and are regulated to assure their safe use. In Washington, for instance, almost 30 million pounds of regulated chemical releases were reported in 2004.

Over time, certain chemicals prove to be particularly harmful and their presence in our land, air, or water poses long-term risks. These are called persistent bioaccumulative toxins because they:

  • Remain in the environment for years without breaking down.
  • As one species consumes another, toxic chemicals move up the food chain and thus build up in the tissues of fish, animals, and humans.
  • Can cause cancer, skin rashes, nervous and reproductive system disorders, immune deficiencies, developmental and learning problems for children, and other health problems.

Heavy metals released by historic mining operations in the Coeur d’Alene Basin pose additional environmental and health concerns.

Chemicals and Heavy Metals in the Spokane River

*Spokane Riverkeeper is one of several contributors to a 2009 public guide to heavy metals and toxic chemicals in the Spokane River.  The Public Guide to Toxic Chemicals and Heavy Metals in the Spokane River can be viewed in pdf format here or by clicking on the guide image of the Guide.

Persistent bioaccumulative toxins of greatest concern are PCBs (a man-made chemical), PBDEs (a new generation of flame retardant) and dioxins/furans. Lead, arsenic, cadmium, and zinc are heavy metals released from mining operations and are also of concern.

Potential human health impacts are tied to eating ?sh caught between the Idaho border and Nine Mile Dam. Sediments of certain recreational beaches from the Idaho border to Upriver Dam are also of concern. The Washington Department of Health responded with recommended limits to eating fish in parts of the Spokane River. They also recommend special precautions when preparing ?sh to eat. The Washington Department of Ecology and other agencies are actively cleaning up and restoring certain contaminated beaches identi?ed as areas of potential risk. Reducing or eliminating toxic chemicals in the river is a very difficult challenge because:

  • Pathways to the river vary widely.
    While most toxic substances are directly deposited in the river, others migrate to the river via tributaries, runoff, stormwater drains, and air particulates over a period of days or years.
  • Sources are both near and far away.
    It is fairly easy to understand the effects of an industrial plant located on the river bank. It is a little harder to understand the effects of a mining operation 100 miles or so upstream. Still harder to understand are toxic chemicals from household, industrial, or farming products that often ?nd their way into the river via ground water, stormwater drains, or wastewater treatment facilities. Even more difficult to grasp are the possible effects of a coal-?red power plant or incinerators located hundreds of miles away. All, however, can contribute to contaminants in the Spokane River.
  • Regulatory Practices.
    Sometimes, as with PCBs, toxic chemicals are only banned after years of being released into the environment. In the case of PBDEs, knowledge is still limited and national or state standards for safe levels are still not in place. In addition, some chemicals are regulated but become too concentrated in certain locations. This may happen when persistent chemicals deposited in an area build up over time. Some deposits build up when persistent chemicals travel to a location via air and water.

Addressing these challenges requires a collaborative effort across many public agencies, private industries, environmental groups, citizens and others with expertise and commitment to meeting the needs of the Spokane River.

Sources and Pathways

Chemicals from hundreds to thousands of miles away can travel as particulates in the air, eventually coming back down to earth. This type of atmospheric fallout may contribute to contaminants in the St. Joe, St. Maries and Coeur d’Alene river basins. These contaminants may then migrate through Lake Coeur d’Alene into the Spokane River.

Stormwater and Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs)
The City of Spokane has over 700 miles of storm drains and sewer drains. Stormwater drains take urban runoff from rain and snow and discharges it into the ground and directly into the Spokane River. There are 130 storm drain outfalls into the river. Sewer drains carry wastewater from homes and businesses to a wastewater treatment plant. At times, primarily during large storm runoff events, wastewater that is not treated at the city’s treatment plant discharges directly into the Spokane River from 27 combined sewer overflow outfalls.

Industry and Municipal Treatment
The Clean Water Act requires permits in order to discharge pollutants directly into the Spokane River. This is called the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). The NPDES permits for the seven existing municipal and industrial dischargers are being reviewed as part of a renewal process. Although regulated and treated, some pollutants still enter the river. The proposed waste water treatment facility for Spokane County must also go through the NPDES permitting process.

Heavy metals from one hundred years of mining in the Coeur d’Alene Basin travel downstream to the Spokane River. Flooding causes the most movement of metals downstream.

You can view a map and guide of pathways HERE.

Evaluating Exposure and Risk

Contaminant pathways to the river include industrial and municipal discharges, stormwater drains, tributaries, atmospheric deposition and urban runoff.

Contaminants can be trapped in sediment on the river bottom, banks, and beaches. They can also attach to fine particulates that travel through the that travel through the water column.

People recreating on certain beaches may be directly exposed to metals-contaminated sediments.

Sediment contaminants can build up in the tissues of worms, insect larvae and other organisms (called the benthic community) that inhabit the river bottom.

Biomagnification and Food Chain
Contaminant concentrations can biomagnify (increase) in the tissues of species as they move higher in the food chain, e.g.—stone fly, to fish, to humans. This happens as

species higher in the food chain ingest and further concentrate toxins in their tissues.
Fish Consumption For fish species that accumulate contaminants in their tissue and organs, toxins can move up the food chain to humans, birds, and other species consuming fish.  You can learn more about fish consumption and tips on how to minimize your exposure to toxins on the Washington State Department of Health Spokane River page HERE and on an old Spokane River Project site HERE.

Status of Toxic Chemicals and Heavy Metals in the Spokane River


Description and Use
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are human-made, chlorinated chemical compounds originally developed in 1929. Because they do not burn, break down or conduct electricity, they were used in electrical transformers, capacitors, lubricants, and many other commercial and household products, e.g.—fluorescent lighting fixtures. Manufacturing of PCBs was banned in 1979.

Sources and Pathways to the Spokane River
Although banned, previous PCB releases still persist in the environment. Products with PCBs are still in use and may release this toxic chemical into the air, water, or soil. Current testing shows about 55% of PCBs enter the river through the City of Spokane combined sewer overflow and storm water system, 25% at the Idaho border, 15% through industrial and waste water treatment discharges, and 5% from the Little Spokane River.

Possible Human Health Effects
PCBs can cause skin rashes, immune deficiencies, liver disease, reproductive disorders, and neurological and behavioral problems. They are also a probable human carcinogen. Their presence in Spokane River fish tissue led to an updated fish consumption and preparation advisory.

Cleanup and Restoration
In 2006, high concentrations of PCBs were “capped” behind Upriver Dam. Capping trapped PCBs and other contaminants on the river bottom by placing layers of coal, sand, and gravel on top of contaminated areas. A couple of miles upstream, PCB sediments were removed in an environmentally sensitive backwater area of Donkey Island and replaced with clean sand. A draft PCB Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) report was released in 2006. Also called a water quality cleanup plan, the report calls for 95 to 99 percent reductions of all PCBs entering the river. A new draft report is expected in the fall of 2007 after further testing of storm water drains is complete. When implemented, PCBs entering the river may be reduced to safe levels.


Description and Use
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are chemical additives used in everyday household products to reduce death and injury from fires. Also called flame retardants, they are found in everyday items like clothing, cushions for chairs and couches, computer casings, carpet pads, and coatings for draperies.

Sources and Pathways to the Spokane River
PBDEs can leach out of products and enter the air, soil, and water. Specific pathways to the Spokane River are not yet known.

Possible Human Health Effects
In lab tests with animals, some PBDEs are linked with brain development (learning, memory and behavior) and thyroid problems. Most problems stem from pre-natal and newborn exposure. Further, the level of PBDEs in human bodies (including breast milk) is doubling every 2 to 5 years. If this rate continues, levels in humans could cause the same problems as those found in animals. 2006 testing showed fish in the Spokane River had the highest levels of PBDEs sampled in Washington State. Concentrations were highest in the Nine Mile area of the Spokane River. No federal or state standards, however, currently exist to determine safe levels of PBDEs in fish for consumption.

Cleanup and Restoration
Testing to determine if PBDEs are entering the Spokane River through storm drains is underway. In 2007, Washington became the first state to ban most manufacture, sale, and use of the most popular PBDE compound (deca). Two other popular PBDE compounds (penta and octa) are being voluntarily phased out of production by manufacturers. A TMDL cleanup plan (like the one for PCBs) to actively reduce PBDEs entering the river is not possible until national and/or state standards for safe levels in water and fish tissue are set. Thus, other approaches are being considered.


Description and Use
Dioxins/furans refer to a group of toxic substances that share a chemical structure. They are mostly produced as a by-product of burning items such as municipal waste, sludge, medical waste, wood, and cement kilns. They can also be produced as part of manufacturing herbicides and pulp/paper products.
Sources and Pathways to the Spokane River Dioxins/furans can be released into the air, soil, and water. As part of statewide monitoring of persistent bioaccumulative toxins, fish tissue sampling in the Spokane River showed elevated levels of dioxins/furans. Specific pathways to the Spokane River are not known at this time.

Possible Human Health Effects
Dioxins/furans are a probable human carcinogen. Non-cancer effects include neurological, immune, and reproductive issues. No state or federal standards currently exist to determine safe levels in fish for consumption.

Cleanup and Restoration
Stormwater drain testing in 2007 includes dioxins/furans. Additionally, future fish tissue sampling will monitor levels of dioxins/furans in fish.


Lead, arsenic, cadmium, and zinc are part of a group of contaminating metals released into the environment as part of mining, milling, and ore processing. Metals concentrated in these wastes can be toxic.

Sources and Pathways to the Spokane River
An estimated 100 million tons of mine wastes were released into the river system from the Upper Coeur d’Alene Basin in Idaho. Contaminants traveled downstream, moved through Lake Coeur d’Alene and deposited in the Spokane River.

Possible Human Health Effects
Ingestion of lead and arsenic from shoreline sediments at recreational beaches from the Idaho border to Upriver Dam are of primary concern, particularly for children playing in the sand. Lead exposure can have multiple effects, including causing behavior and learning problems in children, nervous system damage, kidney damage, and reduced growth. Arsenic can also have multiple effects, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, and changes in the skin. Elevated levels of lead, cadmium and zinc are also present in fish tissue. Their presence in the water and sediments represents a risk to aquatic life. Consumption of fish by people is being monitored as a health concern.

Cleanup and Restoration
Cleanup and restoration activities of contaminated shoreline areas began in 2006. At the Starr Road recreation area, a combination of digging out and reconstruction of shoreline areas and capping was used. This reduces public exposure to lead and arsenic while also restoring important aquatic habitat. Metals were also capped and isolated from the river environment behind Upriver Dam as an added benefit of the PCB cleanup work. In 2007, shoreline areas known as the Island Complex and Murray Road locations (which are within 2 miles of the Idaho border) will be addressed. Th is will include bank stabilization and capping to isolate metals from public exposure and protect fishery spawning habitat. Over the next two to four years, cleanup of additional high-priority shoreline locations will occur.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Fish in the Spokane River Safe to Eat?

The Washington Department of Health issued the following PCB fish advisory in 2003: Do not eat fish caught from the Idaho border to Upriver Dam. Eat no more than one fish per month from Upriver Dam to Nine Mile Dam. This advisory was reviewed in 2007 and no changes were made. Below Nine Mile Dam, there is a Lake Roosevelt mercury advisory for walleye. There is also a statewide mercury advisory for largemouth and smallmouth bass. Limiting your consumption of bass to 2 meals per month is recommended.

Is the Water Quality Safe for Swimming, Water Sports, and Recreating on Beaches?

Yes. There are, however, nine popular recreational shoreline locations between the Idaho border and Upriver Dam identified as potential areas of concern for lead and arsenic. These locations are now in the process of being cleaned up or further evaluated. For all possible contaminants in sand or soil, it is always safest to wash hands, face, feet, and toys before eating and/or leaving a beach.

Who Sets and Enforces Water Quality Regulations?

The federal Clean Water Act authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set water quality standards for all contaminants in surface waters. EPA partners with states and tribes to implement the Clean Water Act with pollution control programs, water cleanup plans (TMDLs), permits for wastewater treatment and other facilities, and other tools. The Washington Department of Ecology is the lead state agency responsible for working with EPA to enforce the Clean Water Act in Washington.

Who is Responsible for Cleanup and Restoration Activities?

PCB cleanup work behind Upriver Dam was supervised by Ecology and funded by Avista Development, Inc. and Kaiser Aluminum as part of a settlement agreement. EPA (Superfund) and Washington State funded cleanup and restoration of the Starr Road recreation area. Cleanup actions at seven additional shoreline sites between the Idaho border and Upriver Dam are being funded by the State of Washington and implemented by Ecology. As cleanup and restoration activities proceed, sources of funding and responsibility for carrying out actions are expected to vary.

Who is Paying for Investigations?

Ecology is currently taking the lead in identifying sources and pathways of PCBs, PBDEs and dioxins/furans entering the Spokane River. Many agencies and stakeholders will be engaged in this process and, depending on findings and needs, may contribute to further investigations.