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What's 9 million tons of toxic slag more?

Canadian firm Teck Cominco used the Columbia River as a hazardous waste dump for about 60 years. What will it cost them?
Washington's Lake Roosevelt

Washington's Lake Roosevelt Google Maps

The Teck Cominco plant in Trail, B.C.

The Teck Cominco plant in Trail, B.C. Photo: Kenny Vannucci

What's the penalty for dumping 9 million tons of toxic slag into a Washington lake? For Teck Cominco, that day of reckoning will probably be delayed years longer. The Canadian mining and smelting company, which has polluted Washington's Lake Roosevelt beyond recognition, filed an appeal January 14th of the U.S. District Court decision that found it liable for environmental damage caused by its Trail, B.C. smelter. The 9th Circuit wants briefs filed this spring, but it hasn't set a court date for the case.

After it eventually rules, the next stop will presumably be the U.S. Supreme Court. Assuming that the state and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, which won last month's District Court decision, eventually prevail, they'll still have to prove ongoing damage to natural resources and the cost of yet-to-be-determined remedial steps.

While there are still plenty of unknowns in this case though, they do not include the basics. Teck admits that its Trail operation has dumped toxics-bearing slag into the upper Columbia River, which has carried it across the border into Lake Roosevelt. In October, the company admitted to a host of factual details, avoiding an anticipated month-long trial and providing material for U.S. District Judge Lonny R. Suko's findings of fact and conclusions of law.

Suko found that "[b]etween 1930 and 1995, Teck discharged at least 9.97 million tons of slag directly into the Columbia River. . . . According to Teck's General Manager of Lead Operations, [the company] discarded approximately 400 tons of slag directly into the Columbia River every day. Teck concedes the 9.97 million tons of slag discarded into the river contained 7,300 tons of lead and 255,000 tons of zinc. . . . At least 8.7 million . . . [tons] have] been transported by the Columbia River . . . into Washington." And that's not all.

The Trail operation also dumped effluent dissolved or suspended in water. "Teck concedes the effluent discarded into the Columbia River from 1923-2005 contained approximately 132,000 tons of hazardous substances, including 108,000 tons of zinc, 22,000 tons of lead, 200 tons of mercury, 1,700 tons of cadmium and 270 tons of arsenic."

The company also knew perfectly well that its wastes ended up downstream: "Teck's Trail leadership assumed that both slag and effluent went downstream, across the border and into Lake Roosevelt," Suko wrote. "Teck employees generally claimed that they did not know where the slag went after it was discarded into the Columbia River, [but] Teck's documents indicate otherwise. They confirm that for decades its leadership knew its slag and effluent flowed from Trail downstream and are now found in Lake Roosevelt and, nonetheless, Teck continued discharging wastes into the Columbia River."

Basically, the company used Lake Roosevelt as a dump site: "It 'was not only the inevitable consequence, but the very purpose' of Teck's disposal practices that the substances would come to be located at the [upper Columbia River] Site."

The company also realized that the wastes weren't exactly benign. "By the 1980s, Teck recognized its discharges were having impacts in the Upper Columbia River. Teck's Manager of Environmental Control . . . noted that samples taken downstream of the Trail facility showed that metals were leaching from Teck's slag. He also noted an absence of aquatic life." Not a decline or even a sharp drop. An absence.

The only real question before Suko was whether or not the U.S. Superfund law, CERCLA, could reach across the border to nail Teck Cominco for damages. "We had a very minimal burden," explains Assistant Attorney General Kristie Elliott, who has handled the case for the state. The plaintiffs "just [had] to show there is contamination at the site and there is a connection to a party." They did.

This isn't the first time Washingtonians have complained about waste products spilling across the border from Trail. Back in 1931, the International Joint Commission (established by treaty in 1909) decided that airborne sulfur dioxide from Trail had damaged coniferous trees and hay and grain crops in Washington, for which Canada should pay the U.S. $350,000. Seven years later, an arbitration tribunal decided that the smelter had continued to cause harm south of the border and awarded the United States $78,000 more.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Feb 6, 3:39 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for this informative update. The Trail Smelter Case is an important and fascinating saga that cuts across nearly the entire spectrum of international environmental law. Last time I looked, about six scholarly books had been written on its various aspects. It perfectly epitomizes the classic conflict between the need to remedy trans-border environmental impacts and the exclusive jurisdictional claims of nation states based on sovereignty, a conflict that seems no closer to resolution now than in 1900.

Even if the damage suit succeeds in the US federal courts, one has to wonder whether a unilateral solution to an international conflict can ever be effectively enforced. And also about the precedential implications of success. This suit, if successful, could open the door to similar claims by Mexico for degradation of the Colorado River, which originates in the US and terminates south of the border. One imagines that Colorado River downstream damage claims could easily dwarf those at stake in Trail Smelter.

woofer

Posted Wed, Feb 6, 9:35 p.m. Inappropriate

Anyone who passes through Trail, which is really an attractive little town, should absolutely take the smelter tour. Back in the '90's they would take you to amazing places, like out on catwalks above the gigantic ore roasting drums, and down into the black depths of the lead drossing pits, a scene straight of Hephaestian mythology if ever there was. No way would you ever be allowed anywhere near such scenes south of the 49th parallel.

The tours were even led by refreshingly non-PR indoctrinated retired union guys who didn't pull any punches or shy away from telling what it was really like to work there in the old days. Stories of the workers in the zinc electrolysis bath operations whose sinuses were eaten way by sulfuric acid fumes were just one of many interesting tales to be heard.

Although I hear they have gotten a little leery about bringing people down into the drossing pits, and the tours may no longer always be led by real union guys, the place is still utterly amazing. The sheer scale and nature of what they do there is fascinating. The picture with this article does not begin to convey the vastness of the place. We're talking serious heavy industry here, unlike anything else I know of in the NW. Unforgettable would not be an exaggeration. I believe they run tours every day at 10 a.m. starting at the "Teck Info Centre" in downtown Trail, below the smelter. Maybe you don't want to drink the water downstream from it, but by all means, see it and believe it!

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