Like a petulant child, the United States is not very good about cleaning up its messes. The latest example can be found at Bradford Island in the Columbia River, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been slow to erase decades of environmental degradation.
Now, officials from Washington, Oregon and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation have asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to designate the area a Superfund site in an attempt to get the federal government to pay attention. Such a move is warranted for the protection of the river and the people who rely on it.
The need for action is clear. According to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the concentration of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in smallmouth bass in the area has been found to be 183,140 parts per billion; the safe level for human consumption is less than 1 part per billion. Fish that spend their lives in the water around the area — and, therefore, the people who consume them — are repeatedly exposed to mercury, lead and the known carcinogens that are PCBs, which were banned 40 years ago.
For the past six years, health officials have warned people to not eat certain species of fish caught within 1 mile upriver from Bonneville Dam. “It is especially important for babies, children, women who are pregnant, plan to become pregnant and/or are nursing to follow this advisory,” health departments from Washington and Oregon warn. “Health effects of eating contaminated fish can include lifelong learning problems and cancer.” The advisory does not apply to anadromous fish such as salmon and steelhead, which merely pass through the region.
A situation in which humans are warned to not eat fish from the Columbia River would seem to demand quick action. But officials complain that the process has been cumbersome. “Resident fish caught near the island contain the highest levels of cancer-causing PCBs in the Northwest,” reads a letter to the federal EPA. “Despite the significant contamination, the Trump administration recently slashed funding for Bradford Island cleanup.”
Superfund designation, which was established in 1980, is reserved for the nation’s most contaminated sites, with a majority of costs typically paid by polluters. The public portion of the funding initially came from taxes on petroleum and chemical products, but Congress in 1995 declined to renew that funding. In Washington, nearly 50 sites have Superfund status, ranging from small industrial locations to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
Designation for Bradford Island would take cleanup obligations out of the hands of the Army Corps of Engineers, which contaminated the site in the first place during and after construction of Bonneville Dam. As Lauren Goldberg of Columbia Riverkeeper said, “The Corps has not prioritized people’s health. They have had decades to clean up some of the most dangerous toxic pollution in the Columbia River.”
That calls for a new approach, yet the issue extends far beyond Bradford Island. More than 1,300 sites throughout the United States have Superfund designation as the nation deals with decades of allowing industrial and economic concerns to trump environmental stewardship. Alarming levels of contamination have lingered, and cleaning it up should be a priority for the federal government.
But, as Bradford Island further demonstrates, America is not very good about cleaning up after itself.