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EPA Evaluating Pollution on Columbia River

Tribe pushes for cleanup of area that was once a place to fish, trade and socialize. For decades, the river was a sewer for mining interests.

October 20, 2002|Linda Ashton | Associated Press Writer

KETTLE FALLS, Wash. — Before the Grand Coulee Dam flattened Kettle Falls into Lake Roosevelt, back when the upper Columbia River ran thick with salmon each summer, tribes from across the region met here to fish, trade and socialize.

"This is where people met, got married, had babies, settled disputes," said Patti Stone, water quality coordinator for the Colville Confederated Tribes' environmental trust office. "It was the second-largest fishery on the Columbia River."

The huge falls are gone, and so are the days when the last salmon chief shared pieces of the first fish caught with everyone present in honor of abundance and friendship.

But the salmon culture and the river remain historically and spiritually important to the nearly 9,000-member Colville tribe. "This is our home," Stone said.

That's why, in 1999, the Colvilles initiated the first step of the Superfund process by asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to study the level of contamination in the upper Columbia River, including the lake.

It's too early to say if Lake Roosevelt, a national recreation area that attracts 1.5 million visitors a year, would ever be listed for Superfund cleanup, said Monica Tonel, a site assessment manager for the EPA in Seattle.

But this fall, the EPA will release a draft report on pollution in the upper Columbia River watershed that will help determine how much more needs to be done.

For decades, the early heavy industry of the West -- mines, mills and smelters -- on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border dumped their waste into the river, counting on its powerful flow to disperse and dilute the poison.

In 1937, the Grand Coulee Dam -- the biggest hydropower producer in the country -- was built, and behind the mammoth dam, the Columbia River became Lake Roosevelt, a 130-mile-long reservoir.

"The river has always been a convenient sewer for industry. Once the dam was built, the sewer started backing up," said Don Hurst, president of Fulcrum, an environmental consulting firm hired by the Colvilles.

The shores of the lake glint in the sunlight where fragments of glassy black slag catch and collect to form transient sparkling beaches, a deceptively pretty testament to more than a century of heavy-metal pollution.

"We do have some indication that there are some problems out there," said Flora Goldstein, the state Department of Ecology's acting regional director in Spokane. "We're not talking immediate health threats."

The state Department of Health has issued advisories warning people to limit the amount of fish they eat from the lake and to take special precautions when preparing it.

U.S. Geological Survey and EPA data show copper, lead and zinc in river sediment.

While the biggest heavy-metal polluters along the river on the U.S. side have long since shut down, six miles north of the Canadian border, at Trail, British Columbia, Teck Cominco operates the largest lead-zinc smelter in the world.

"The big kahuna is Cominco, but there are other sources," said Gary Passmore, director of the tribes' environmental trust office.

For example, a copper and lead smelter that closed in 1922 is in ruins near Northport's city park, six miles south of the Canadian border. Gold mines across northeastWashington once used mercury in processing.

Teck Cominco acknowledges its role as an industrial polluter historically and, like the tribes and the state, is waiting to see the results of the EPA report.

"It's impossible for us to commit to anything specifically," said Mark Edwards, Teck Cominco's manager for environment, health and safety at Trail. "We really want to stand on our record of improvements, certainly in the last 10 years, and we are committed to doing the right thing to follow up on our historic practices."

From the 1920s until 1995, Cominco typically released 100,000 tons of slag annually into the river. The smelter stopped the discharge because of environmental concerns and the successful development of a market for some of the slag.

Hurst and the tribes' analysis of public records from British Columbia show that since the dam was built, Cominco deposited what amounts to a dump-truck full of slag into the river every 35 minutes. The data also show that the century-old smelter's primary disposal pipe repeatedly exceeded its British Columbia permit limits, releasing almost 1,200 pounds of mercury between 1992 and 1996.

"In the late '80s and the early 1990s, our mercury releases were problematic," Edwards said. "We worked very hard to meet our permits."

Part of the problem was a phosphate rock that contained elevated levels of mercury and was used to make fertilizer.

"We tried our darnedest to control the release amount for the phosphate rock," Edwards said. Eventually, the plant abandoned the process and replaced it with one that requires no discharge to the river.

Between the mid-1970s and the 1990s, Cominco upgraded and modernized the smelter with changes that were driven by worker and environmental concerns, he said. In the last 10 years, Teck Cominco has reduced the release of individual heavy metals such as mercury and lead by 95% to 99%, he said.

"We're certainly now well below permitted levels," Edwards said. "The river meets very stringent water-quality objectives, objectives that are more stringent than those that apply in Washington state or federally in the United States."

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