Environmental watchdog Columbia Riverkeeper and the Port of Vancouver USA came to a settlement Tuesday over alleged water pollution coming from the port.
The organization began its legal proceedings against the port in 2020, alleging a Clean Water Act violation.
The proposed settlement reached this week will undergo a 45-day review by the U.S. Department of Justice and then must be approved by a federal judge before going into effect. It includes a $25.5 million investment from one of the port’s operators to help control pollution.
“This settlement is going to lead to major changes in the amount of toxic pollution flowing into the Columbia River,” said Lauren Goldberg, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper.
The pollution in question is copper concentrate, a mineral that arrives at the port in granular form. The mineral arrives in covered rail cars, is stored in a pile in an enclosed building and finally loaded into the holds of cargo ships using a conveyor belt.
“As a port who’s won awards for environmental stewardship, we strongly dispute the claims made in this legal maneuver, and all along have been confident the complainant would eventually agree to put them to rest,” Casey Bowman, a spokesperson for the Port of Vancouver USA, said in a statement Wednesday.
“The Port of Vancouver’s strong environmental record includes literally writing the blueprint for stormwater management innovations,” added Bowman. “So, we gladly agreed to enumerate a list of actions that line up with our proactive approach to protecting the Columbia River watershed — including multiple that were already underway.”
The settlement also directs the port to develop a plan to maintain its bioretention treatment system, to relocate its stored metal and to further reduce stormwater pollution with the use of a Vactor truck that uses suction for cleaning and excavating. The settlement also requires the port to study where else on its property copper pollution could be coming from.
According to Columbia Riverkeeper, there isn’t a single identifiable source of copper concentrate pollution. The organization suspects the pollution could be occurring at every step along the loading process.
The organization maintains that the port’s changes would not have happened had it not been for its legal actions. The port, however, disputes this, saying it took steps to control the copper pollution a year before Columbia Riverkeeper filed its lawsuit.
“Available information, including the port’s water quality sampling data, suggest that the port is the single largest industrial source of unhealthy copper levels in the lower Columbia River over the last decade,” said Brian Knutsen, an attorney representing Columbia Riverkeeper.
A new operator, Vancouver Bulk Terminal, began handling the port’s copper concentrate shipping process this year. Previously the mineral was handled by the Metropolitan Stevedore Company.
The settlement includes the port agreeing to work with Vancouver Bulk Terminal to install a $25 million rotainer system, which will keep the copper sealed in a container during the loading process. The new system has been planned but not yet installed.
The port said that its directive to install a rotainer system, even before the lawsuit was filed, included having its operator pay for it.
The rotainer system will ensure that the copper concentrate is transported and loaded aboard the ships in an enclosed conveyance. Once inside the ship, the conveyance will open to release the mineral.
Columbia Riverkeeper expects this system to dramatically reduce the port’s copper pollution.
The settlement also requires the port to make a payment in lieu of a penalty of $500,000 to the Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board. And the port has agreed to fund and implement a $150,000 project to improve the water quality in Vancouver Lake by January 2024.
“If our legal action had not happened, the port would not be making these changes through a court enforceable settlement with deadlines to make the changes,” said Goldberg.
According to the settlement, the rotainer system must be operational by the end of 2027.