Posted ’22-JUL-04 03:00′ GMT – – Archive

After months of negotiations, the Colville Confederated Tribes made good on their threat Wednesday to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to declare Lake Roosevelt in Washington state a Superfund site.

The tribes filed a suit Wednesday in U.S. federal district court to compel the enforcement of an administrative order issued six months ago by the U.S. EPA to Teck Cominco to submit to the U.S. Superfund Law (CERCLA). In a news release issued Wednesday, Doug Horswill, Senior Vice President for Environment and Corporate Affairs for Teck Cominco, declared that “this suit will result in time and money being wasted on litigation, which could be best used to address the public’s environmental concerns regarding Lake Roosevelt.” Lake Roosevelt is a reservoir located on the American Upper Columbia River above Grand Coulee Dam. A substantial portion of the lake borders the Colville Indian Reservation.

The 9,000-member Colville tribes first petitioned the EPA in 1999 to determine whether a 130-mile section of the Columbia River behind the Grand Coulee Dam and 21 nearby mines should be declared a Superfund site. The tribe has also generated a cross-international border fight, seeking Canadian pollution records for Teck Cominco’s Trail, British Columbia, lead-zinc smelter, which has been considered the largest historic source of pollution in the upper Columbia River.

Teck Cominco, the Colville Confederated Tribes, the EPA, and state agencies had been negotiating a potential settlement to avoid the Superfund designation when talks broke down last November.

While the biggest heavy-metal polluters along the river on the U.S. side shut down years ago, Teck Cominco still is operating the Trail lead-zinc smelter several miles north of the Canadian border. Records estimate that Cominco may have dumped as much as 9.8 million tons of slag and tons of mercury, sulfuric acid, and other chemicals into the river for more than 60 years. Environmental agencies from both British Columbia and Washington State, and the U.S. Geological Survey have been conducting programs to determine the extent of contamination from the Trail Smelter. Since 1990, U.S. and Canadian agencies have cooperated in the Columbia River Integrated Environmental Monitoring Program to jointly negotiate source control and watershed planning efforts.

Meanwhile, Teck Comico has long acknowledged its role as a historical industrial polluter. From the 1920s until 1995, the company released 100,000 tons of slag annually into the river. The Trail smelter stopped the discharge for environmental reasons and because a market had been developed for some of the slag. In the last decade, Teck Cominco has reduced the release of individual heavy metals by 95 to 99%, according to the company’s environmental managers. Horswill estimated that the company has spent more than $1 billion in plant improvements over the last two decades, achieving an environmental performance that meet the highest criteria in both the U.S. and Canada. In a news release, Dr. Mark Edwards, environmental manager for the smelter said the smelter “now ranks with the best in its class.” Air emissions have been reduce by 90% while annual discharges to water have been cut by 99%, he added.

The Canadian Government contends that EPA cannot apply the U.S. Superfund Law to Vancouver-based Teck Cominco. Horswill has argued that there is no precedent or legal right for the EPA to apply its regulations to a Canadian company. However, the Confederated Tribes have argued that U.S. taxpayers should not pay to clean up the Columbia River since Teck Cominco allegedly made “billions of dollars in part by using the Columbia River as a sewer.”

The EPA has rejected Teck Cominco’s offer to voluntarily spend $13 million for studies to assess human health and environmental concerns relating to Lake Roosevelt. An EPA spokesman has said the proposed studies weren’t up to U.S. standards. The agency contends U.S. laws should apply because the smelter pollution ended up in the United States. The Washington State Department of Ecology is also supporting the Superfund designation. Teck Cominco is worried that if Lake Roosevelt is declared a Superfund site, the Canadian company will be held responsible for cleaning up pollution caused by historic mining in which it had no role.

Meanwhile, three Republican members of Congress, who represent Washington state, have advocated an alternative cleanup proposed by the Eastern Washington Council of Governments. County commissioners from several rural counties near Lake Roosevelt want the cleanup handled outside the Superfund Process. Stevens County Commission Chairman Tony Delgado contends that “Superfund would put a stigma on the lake and would take too many years.” That stigma would harm tourism, lower property values, and hurt economic development, he added.

Despite the lawsuit, Horswill vowed that the company with “continue to work with the Canadian and U.S. authorities to find a mutually acceptable, bilateral process to address the Lake Roosevelt issue. The solution should come from cooperation, not litigation.” In the meantime, he concluded, “Teck Comico will vigorously defend itself against this action.”

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