Legal fight brewing over Lake Roosevelt - EPA to conduct $10 million pollution study, then take B.C. smelter to court

Karen Dorn Steele
Spokesman Review Staff writer


Spokane, WA - After failed negotiations with a Canadian polluter, U.S. regulators are pursuing Plan B.

The Environmental Protection Agency will launch its four-year pollution study of Lake Roosevelt -- and fight in federal court to recover its costs from Vancouver, B.C.-based Teck Cominco Ltd.

The EPA's new studies will cost up to $10 million over four years. The EPA also will try to recover from Teck Cominco about $1.8 million it already has spent on studying the Columbia River pollution.

For decades, Teck Cominco's Trail, B.C., smelter has dumped millions of tons of heavy metals-tainted slag and toxic chemicals into the river, records show.

A major legal battle with a foreign company over trans-border pollution is unprecedented, but Lake Roosevelt cleanup costs should not be borne by American taxpayers, said Dave Croxton, the EPA's regional cleanup manager in Seattle.

"We'll go after the Canadian facility. We've been told we have a valid legal position because their wastes ended up in the United States," Croxton said.

Teck Cominco's offer to pay for up to $13 million in Lake Roosevelt studies is still on the table, senior vice president Doug Horswill said Monday.

"There's a moral obligation here, and we intend to live up to it," Horswill said.

In recent negotiations, the EPA tried to get Teck Cominco's U.S. subsidiary, Spokane-based Teck Cominco American Inc., to agree 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.

Talks with the EPA collapsed Thanksgiving week.

On Nov. 27, the company said the potential cross-border application of U.S. environmental laws raises "issues of real concern" -- suggesting a diplomatic solution.

The EPA had agreed to proceed under a Superfund "alternative" that allows studies without a formal Superfund listing, but couldn't agree to waive its cleanup standards to accommodate Teck Cominco, Croxton said.

The company also refused to preserve the rights of trustees, such as Indian tribes, to sue for natural resources damages, as all U.S. companies must do in Superfund negotiations, he said.

Last year, an EPA study of 58 sediment samples concluded the lake from Inchelium to the Canadian border already qualifies for Superfund listing because of hazards to aquatic life from heavy metals.

Elevated heavy metals were detected near Northport and high mercury levels were found near Kettle Falls, the study says.

The only other time the United States has collected from Canada for cross-border pollution involved the same Trail, B.C., smelter.

In 1938, an international tribunal ruled that British Columbia and smelter owner Cominco, Ltd. were responsible for crop damage to Northport-area farmers from smelter emissions. The U.S. government eventually collected $428,000 in damages.

The tribunal ruled Canada was responsible for the smelter's conduct because no government has the right to permit the use of its land to injure another country.

The impasse over Lake Roosevelt has set off a lobbying scramble in Washington, D.C.

The Council of Governments, a group of rural Eastern Washington county commissioners opposed to a Superfund listing and formed with $150,000 from Teck Cominco, met recently in Washington, D.C., with Marianne Horinko, a top EPA official who served as acting administrator earlier this year.

Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Spokane, has opposed Superfund listing for Lake Roosevelt.

Federal Election Commission records show that Teck Cominco's U.S. political action committee, Compac, gave Nethercutt $1,000 in September 2000 for his congressional campaign. That has no bearing on Nethercutt's stance, his press secretary April Gentry said.

"His first concern is to address human health risks. He'd like (EPA and Teck Cominco) to go back to the negotiating table. This burden shouldn't rest on the taxpayer," Gentry said.

Teck Cominco has also retained Elliott Laws, former Superfund chief in the Clinton administration from 1994 to 1997 and a Washington, D.C., insider.

"They are raising the ante. The U.S. State Department also will get involved," Croxton said.

The region's environmental groups are backing the EPA.

"We're very pleased the EPA is doing its job," said Neal Beaver of the Lands Council.

Cominco and the Council of Governments will try to get EPA's decision overturned, said David Hefflick of the Kettle Range Conservation Group.

His group will continue "to encourage EPA to do the right thing for the upper Columbia," Hefflick added.

Meanwhile, a Republican state senator has declared his opposition to EPA's plans. In a statement sent to the media on Monday, Sen. Bob Morton calls 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.

EPA will use regional and headquarters funds to start the Lake Roosevelt studies so the question of risk can be resolved, Croxton said.

First up: a Superfund work plan will be developed with input from many groups active in Lake Roosevelt issues, including rural governments, Indian tribes, environmental groups and local residents.

•Karen Dorn Steele can be reached at 459 5462, or by e-mail at


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