U.S. Water News Online
SPOKANE, Wash. -- It's not often the United States serves
as a dumping ground for a foreign factory, but that is happening in
the remote northeast corner of Washington.
The Environmental Protection Agency is trying to force a Canadian
company to clean up decades of toxic smelter wastes that have flowed
down the Columbia River into Lake Roosevelt in the United States.
The EPA recently broke off talks with Teck Cominco Ltd., saying
the Vancouver, British Columbia-based company was not serious about
cleaning up the wastes, and is now pursuing legal action.
Not since the Pig War of 1859 between the United States and Great
Britain has there been such an international brouhaha in the Pacific
Northwest. That dispute, over who owned San Juan Island, cost the
life of a British pig before Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany decided the
United States owned the island.
The current dispute may also require high-level intervention.
``Lake Roosevelt presents a unique opportunity for environmental
cooperation between our two countries,'' Teck Cominco Chief Executive
Officer David A. Thompson wrote in a letter to EPA in Seattle.
But in the same letter he insisted his company does not have to
meet all requirements of U.S. environmental law because it operates
entirely in Canada.
The EPA opposes that position, contending that since the wastes
ended up in the United States, Teck Cominco is required to clean them
to American specifications. The agency acknowledged it may be
breaking new legal ground.
``We do have a valid legal theory for how to do so, but the nature
of it is precedent setting or close to it,'' said Dave Croxton, the
EPA's regional cleanup manager in Seattle.
In response, Teck Cominco is seeking diplomatic resolution.
``We have raised the matter with the government of Canada and they
have indicated their need to deal with their counterparts in the
government of the United States,'' Thompson said.
At issue is the company's giant lead and zinc smelter on the banks
of the Columbia River in Trail, British Columbia, 10 miles north of
the U.S.-Canada border. The EPA contends the smelter is the largest
source of metals pollution in Lake Roosevelt, a reservoir created
when the river was blocked behind Grand Coulee Dam in 1937.
A smelter has been operating at the site since the early 1900s,
with the latest replacement built in 1997.
Last year, an EPA study of sediment samples concluded the portion
of the lake from Inchelium to the Canadian border already qualified
for Superfund listing because of hazards to aquatic life from heavy
The metals flow down the river into Lake Roosevelt. The reservoir
is a national recreation area used by one million boaters, swimmers
and fishers each year.
Smelter operations have dumped an estimated 10 million to 20
million tons of slag into the river. Slag is a smelting byproduct
that contains lead, arsenic and mercury.
Exposure to heavy metals can cause brain and kidney damage,
behavioral disorders, blindness, deafness, and mental retardation.
Children and fetuses are especially sensitive.
The EPA is launching a study of the extent of the pollution. The
study is expected to take four years and cost $10 million. The agency
will pursue legal action against Teck Cominco Ltd. in U.S. federal
court to recover those costs, plus $1.8 million it has already spent
studying the pollution.
Environmentalists are cheered by the action.
``Teck Cominco has illegally treated our Columbia River as their
sewer and Lake Roosevelt as their cesspool,'' said Bob Jackman of
Citizens for a Clean Columbia, an environmental group. ``For decades,
Teck Cominco has been a bad corporate neighbor.''
Teck Cominco has contended the pollution came from several sources
and it shouldn't be saddled with all the costs.
Thompson said Teck Cominco wants to work voluntarily with EPA and
local governments to try and resolve the issues. The company has
offered to spend $13 million on studies, and has agreed to some other
``What Teck Cominco is willing to do is to enter into an agreement
with your agency, fully enforceable under the laws of the United
States, to fund the analysis and to pay for the remediation
required,'' Thompson wrote.
But Croxton said Teck Cominco's offer falls well short of EPA
cleanup standards that would apply to any polluter in the United
``In our view they ignored some of the basics,'' Croxton said.
No more talks are planned between EPA and Teck Cominco.
The only other time the United States has collected from Canada
for cross-border pollution involved the same Trail-based smelter
In 1938, an international tribunal ruled that British Columbia and
Cominco Ltd. were responsible for crop damage to Northport-area
farmers from smelter emissions. The U.S. government eventually
That tribunal ruled Canada was responsible for the smelter's
pollution because it permitted use of its land to injure another
Neil Beaver of The Lands Council in Spokane said Teck Cominco is
shirking responsibility for its past messes.
``At my end of the chain, mining has created few jobs and left a
legacy of toxic waste,'' Beaver said.
The EPA tried and failed to get Teck Cominco's U.S. subsidiary,
Spokane-based Teck Cominco American Inc., to take legal
responsibility for the cleanup, Croxton said. The subsidiary is due
to open a $70 million zinc mine near Metaline Falls next month to
feed the Trail smelter.
Teck Cominco has plenty of supporters in Eastern Washington, who
worry that a Superfund listing for Lake Roosevelt will hurt the
region's economy. Such a listing is required if the U.S. government
pays for cleanup work.
The Council of Governments, a group of rural county commissioners
formed with $150,000 from Teck Cominco, is opposed to a Superfund
listing and has met with top EPA officials.
Republican U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, who represents Eastern
Washington in Congress, has publicly opposed Superfund listing for
State Sen. Bob Morton, R-Orient, called the EPA's plans for Lake
Roosevelt ``overkill.'' A National Park Service monitoring plan shows
the river is ``self-cleansing'' and health risks around the lake are
very low, Morton said.
The Washington state Department of Health disagrees, saying the
slag-covered beaches near Northport pose a health risk.
Soil samples near the smelter have been found to contain lead,
arsenic and cadmium. Between 1992 and 2001, Teck Cominco discharged
just under 2,000 pounds of mercury directly into the river. Multiple
studies of fish and sediments from Lake Roosevelt have revealed high
levels of arsenic, mercury, cadmium, copper, lead, zinc, dioxins,
furans and PCBs.
Fish consumption warnings have been issued for Lake Roosevelt,
because exposure to mercury can cause permanent brain and kidney
damage in humans.
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