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News / Northwest

EPA proposes adding Columbia River from Grand Coulee Dam to Canada border to superfund list

By James Hanlon, The Spokesman-Review
Published: March 6, 2024, 7:43am

SPOKANE — The Environmental Protection Agency wants to make a 150-mile section of the Columbia River from Grand Coulee Dam to the Canada border a superfund site.

The federal agency announced Tuesday it proposed adding the site to the National Priorities List of hazardous waste sites eligible for cleanup financed under the federal superfund program.

“Today’s action builds on decades of efforts to clean up the river and protect the health of people who live, work, and recreate in and near the Upper Columbia,” EPA Region 10 Administrator Casey Sixkiller said in a statement. “Listing this site on the National Priorities List unlocks the full suite of tools and resources of EPA’s Superfund program to address this complex site and take additional steps to protect young children from harmful levels of lead.”

The agency has determined that soils contaminated with lead and arsenic pose unacceptable risk to residents at affected properties, particularly to children. The EPA found that soil in at least 194 residential areas contain amounts of lead that exceed the agency’s new screening level for residential lead contamination.

The primary source of contamination, according to the EPA, is the Teck Metals Ltd. lead and zinc smelting facility in Trail, British Columbia, approximately 10 river miles upstream of the international boundary. The former Le Roi smelter, which closed in 1921 in Northport, Washington, also contributed contamination.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the Spokane Tribe wrote letters of support.

“The legacy of contamination and risks to human health and the environment justify adding the site to the National Priorities List,” Inslee said in response. “It is time to turn needed attention to clean up the Upper Columbia River Site for all who depend on it as a treasured natural and cultural resource.”

The Colville Reservation borders more than half of the designated area of the river. Chairman Jarred-Michael Erickson said the river is a valuable asset for the tribes and the region. He said access to the extra federal funds is badly needed to help with the restoration costs.

“We are just looking for the cleanup of the river so all our kids and grandkids can enjoy it,” Erickson said.

Erickson said he worries about eating fish from the river because of consumption limit advisories from contaminants. The cleanup will help the tribe’s salmon restoration efforts, he said.

Stevens County Commissioner Wes McCart criticized the proposal, saying it was premature, and he worries of an economic downturn that could result from stigma associated with superfund sites.

McCart said that about 20 years ago, the county commissioners were assured by the EPA that it wouldn’t make any listing until it completed a remedial investigation and feasibility study.

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In 2006, the EPA and Teck Metals entered into a settlement agreement along with Teck American Inc. and the U.S. Department of Justice to complete studies that establish the nature and extent of contamination.

Although Teck is funding the studies, the agreement does not require Teck to complete a comprehensive cleanup of the site.

A human health risk assessment was completed in 2021 and shows “unacceptable risks to people’s health caused primarily by lead and other metals to a lesser extent,” an EPA news release said.

Lead in residential soil was the primary concern for people’s health and the environment. Public beaches and the river were determined safe for recreation except for Bossburg Beach.

Ecological risk assessments are still underway.

McCart said the EPA has waited this long, so it should wait until the process is finished. He also said the cleanup site boundaries are too broad.

“I’m not denying that there are some areas of aerial deposition around Northport that need to be cleaned up,” McCart said. “I’m all for cleaning up, but I don’t think you need to list such a large water body to do that.”

McCart chairs a group of area county commissioners called the Eastern Washington Council of Governments that also opposed the proposal.

Andy Dunau, who is executive director of the Lake Roosevelt Forum, a nonpartisan organization that focuses on sharing information and fostering dialog about the lake behind Grand Coulee Dam, said the lake and river are completely safe for recreation.

He said fish advisories are similar to other parts of the state. The main concerns are with soil contamination that blew downwind from smelter smokestacks, not from the river.

“This is a soil issue, not a water issue,” Dunau said.

The EPA and the Washington State Department of Ecology have conducted numerous soil cleanups over the years, especially focused on residential properties and parkland.

Nick Acklam, section manager for Ecology’s toxics cleanup program, said that whether or not the Upper Columbia becomes a superfund site shouldn’t affect Ecology’s work in the area, and that the state agency works closely with the EPA.

Acklam said Ecology has another project removing contaminated sediment from Northport Waterfront in the next few months.

EPA spokesman Bill Dunbar said that heavy metals in slag, a waste product from the smelting process, also pose a risk to people. Teck said it stopped releasing slag into the river in 1996.

The proposed superfund site is currently designated as a study area. Dunbar said that even if the site is approved, the remedial investigation and feasibility study would still need to be finished before the EPA could develop a cleanup proposal, which itself requires public comment before final approval. It’s a multi-year process.

Dunbar said that in addition to funding, if the Upper Columbia became a superfund site, it would have access to legal tools that could compel action if needed.

The proposal to add the Upper Columbia to the priorities list will be published in the federal register, and a 60-day public comment period will follow from March 7 to May 6, 2024.

After reviewing the comments, the EPA will decide whether to include the site as early as September.