Canadian company says it won't study pollution effects on river


A Canadian mining company whose smelter just across the border dumped millions of tons of waste into the upper Columbia River is refusing U.S. demands to study ecological effects of the heavy-metal pollution in this country.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had set a deadline of yesterday for Teck Cominco Ltd.'s American subsidiary to say it would conduct the studies.

Otherwise, Cominco would face the possibility that the EPA would designate the area a Superfund site, empowering the agency to compel Cominco to conduct studies and carry out a cleanup.

The 130-mile-long stretch of the Columbia behind Grand Coulee Dam known as Lake Roosevelt attracts some 1.5 million visitors a year, many from the Seattle area. Recreational spending is a crucial contributor to the region's already-faltering economy, and local officials fear the Superfund label might cripple that cash flow.

Cominco told EPA officials it's willing to study the human health effects of the lead, mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals it has dumped. But the company said the ecology of the upper Columbia is too complicated for Cominco to address alone.

"We are disappointed that the company is thumbing its nose at its responsibility to help its downstream neighbors better understand how its hundred years of heavy metal-dumping has affected the river and may be affecting human health," said Bill Dunbar, spokesman for the EPA's Seattle-based Region 10.

Karen Ducey / P-I
From left, Samantha Duong, 7, and her twin sister, Christina, both of Spokane, and Grace Nguyen, 9, of Tacoma splash in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake at Spring Canyon.
Dave Godlewski, manager of environmental and public affairs at Spokane-based Teck Cominco American Inc., took exception to that characterization. He said Cominco wants the health studies done first "so that the people who live around the lake and recreate in the lake understand whether they can go there without risking their health."

In a letter delivered to the EPA late yesterday, Cominco said it's willing to pay for studies on whether Lake Roosevelt fish are safe to eat, whether the water is safe to drink, and whether it's safe to play on the beaches. Those could be done in 18 months, the company says, while a Superfund designation ensures that studies and cleanups would drag on for years.

"Ecological studies ... would be far more complicated," Cominco wrote to the EPA, "and as you agree, 'there are other factors affecting the ecological health of Lake Roosevelt.' "

Among the factors that influence the lake's health, Cominco pointed out: construction of dams that cause lake levels to fluctuate wildly and exterminated local salmon populations; grazing; logging; recreational use; and shoreside development.

"If ecological studies are to be effective, then all the major participants that are potentially affecting the ecology of the lake must be involved in the process," Cominco wrote. Those include a number of U.S. government agencies, including the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Dunbar, though, said Cominco is muddying the waters. All the EPA asked Cominco to study was the effect of the metals on the plants and animals that live in the river, he said.

"Throwing grazing and other unrelated issues into this discussion we think is an insult to those who live downstream," Dunbar said. "Red herring don't swim in these parts."

Dunbar pointed out that north of the border, Cominco is carrying out a battery of ecological studies much like what the EPA and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation have advocated the company undertake south of the border.

Godlewski said the Canadian studies the company is doing are "largely voluntary."

County commissioners from seven counties -- Ferry, Stevens, Pend Oreille, Okanogan, Lincoln, Grant and Douglas -- are forming a group called the Eastern Washington Council of Governments to fight the Superfund designation.

"We have 218,000 people who are directly affected by the economy and the ecology and the health of this lake," said Merrill Ott, a Stevens County commissioner. "We feel the first priority should be to complete a health study that is agreed to by everyone. ... We are elected representatives. That's our concern is our people's health."

Mo McBroom of the Washington Public Interest Group said health studies are important, but not if the natural ecology of the lake gets overlooked.

"To do human health studies and ignore the fundamental ecological problems of the lake is inappropriate," McBroom said.

A preliminary EPA investigation into the lake's health was launched after the Colville tribe requested it. The tribe, too, would like to see a cleanup take place without the "stigma" of a Superfund designation, because the tribe has important economic interests tied to recreation in the area, said D.R. Michel, a member of the Colville Tribal Business Council and chairman of its natural resources committee.

But if Cominco won't proceed with the needed studies, the Superfund designation may be necessary, the council says.

"We're willing to do whatever it takes to clean up our river," Michel said. "We've been here for 10,000 years. We're not going anywhere. We're in it for the long-term."


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