Teck Smelter Stipulates to Polluting the Columbia River

According to the Spokesman Review, Canadian mining company Teck Metals, Inc. has admitted in U.S. District Court to dumping toxic metals and other pollution into the Columbia River near the Washington border during the past century.

The legal stipulation released Monday, September 10, 2012, comes a week before the company is set to defend itself in a trial brought by the Colville Confederated Tribes and the State of Washington.

The company’s smelter and ore processing operations in Trail, B.C., discharged hundreds of thousands of tons of hazardous materials and metals from slag and industrial sewage.

The toxic metals include mercury, arsenic, lead and zinc, copper and cadmium. The pollution washed onto the river’s banks as sediments, creating black sand beaches in some areas.

Though Teck admitted it has discharged pollutants into the river, the company argues that it is not subject to United States law.

U.S. District Judge Lonny Suko has been asked to decide whether the company is liable under U.S. law, according to a press release from Washington’s Department of Ecology.

Teck has been fighting against and at times working with the tribes and Washington regulators for years over how to best manage Columbia River pollution.

The company is conducting studies in concert with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to determine the extent of contamination, which some say could cost more than $1 billion to clean up.

Tech has spent millions of dollars improving its smelter, which sits about 6 miles north of the Washington border.

The admission, in the form of a legal stipulation that was entered by the federal court, comes after eight years of litigation by the Colville Confederated Tribes and the state of Washington. Teck admits it intentionally discharged nearly 10 million tons of slag-waste separated from ore during smelting-along with industrial sewage containing hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic metals such as mercury, copper, cadmium, arsenic, lead, and zinc to the river in Canada over the last century.

Teck now admits these substances are hazardous and that they came to rest in the sediments along the shores of the Upper Columbia River in Washington state. They also concede that heavy metals continue to leach from its waste into Washington state’s environment, meaning they are potentially available to cause harm. Establishing liability is the first step to hold the company accountable for assessing and addressing the risks posed to the public and the environment.

“The state is very pleased with this development,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristie Carevich Elliott. “The state and Colville Tribes worked together to present a strong case, even ahead of the trial, to prove that the massive quantities of waste historically discharged by Teck’s smelter over the last century have impacted, and continue to impact, the upper Columbia River and Lake Roosevelt in Washington state.”

Teck still intends to re-argue it is not subject to United States law, given that the initial discharge of waste occurred less than 10 miles north of Washington in Canada. Arguments to this effect were already rejected in an early phase of the case, but Teck is entitled to renew them on appeal.

Judge Lonny Suko in the Eastern District of Washington will first decide liability under U.S. law, however. This decision will be based on evidence already submitted to the court and will be the subject of legal arguments to the court on Oct. 10, 2012.

According to the Department of Ecology (Ecology), studies have shown that slag and industrial sewage from the Teck smelter have deposited toxic materials to the sediments and banks of the river in Washington.

Ecology is concerned that the pollution will harm an array of important aquatic life, such as the small bottom dwelling creatures that form a key foundation to the underwater food chain. Their health directly affects the fishery and river ecosystem.

“We are pleased that the fundamental science is now settled,” said Mike Hibbler who manages Ecology’s Toxic Cleanup Program in Spokane. “In addition to risks to the base of the river food chain, the health and reproduction of other species, such as native sturgeon and wild mussel populations, are directly placed at risk by toxicity remaining in the sediments. Plus, the aquatic habitat of the Columbia River and Lake Roosevelt and neighboring upland has been affected by past smelter air emissions.”