CBC In Depth
A century of slag
Reporter: Chris Brown, CBC News | December 15, 2003

A group of Washington state residents has convinced the powerful U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take on a Canadian smelting giant because there could be health risks from pollution dumped into the Columbia River.

For decades now, people living on the Columbia River in Washington state have worried about what might be beneath the river water.

Tom Louis and his neighbour Paddy Stone live in the native American community Inchelium. The river runs deep through their lives. Tom swam in it when he was a kid. He ate its fish and built a house on its banks. He became a first-time father when he was 61.

"Now I have a daughter. And she's now five. I'm totally ashamed of what we Have done. I can't take her down to the water. I have nothing to leave her," he says.

Some residents put up warnings about a possible danger
In the 1980s and '90s, scientists started taking a hard look at the problems on the Columbia. They found unsafe levels of toxins in the fish and contamination along the banks.

Some people put up warnings about a possible danger, and local kids say they throw all the fish back into the river because of the pollution.

Earlier this year, the United States government got involved and it pointed the finger at Canada, at Teck Cominco. The company operates a metals smelter in Trail, B.C, about 20 kilometres north of the border.

Teck Cominco
According to the U.S. EPA, it has left a legacy of massive contamination: slag is a fine, black, sand-like substance that's a byproduct of the smelting process. The company dumped the equivalent one full dumptruck every hour for 60 years. The U.S. government says that dumping is a big part of what's wrong with the Columbia River.

There's been a smelter in Trail since 1896, not long after gold was discovered in the hills nearby. During the war years, the company accelerated its processing of lead and zinc. The complaints about pollution accelerated, too.

In the 1940s, U.S. farmers downwind took the smelter owners before an international panel. It forced the company to cut poisonous emissions.

In the Columbia River though, the slag continued to pile up, practically all of it discharged with the blessing of the B. C. government. The current carried it south creating islands and beaches of black sand.

The theory, according to B.C. regulators, was that any pollution from the Teck Comnico smelter would be diluted as it flowed down the river. However, many people who live on the U.S. side of the border are saying all that slag is now their environmental hazard.

Much of the slag now coats the bottom of Lake Roosevelt, a 150-kilometre-long reservoir created when the Grand Coolie Dam was built on the Columbia in the 1940s. It's now one of Washington state's most popular recreation areas.

Lake Roosevelt
The river practically flows through Paddy Stone's backyard. She lives on the Colville Indian Reservation, about an hour's drive south of the Canadian border.

The twigs and materials for her baskets come from the river's edge, one of the reasons why she petitioned the U.S. EPA to take on the case of what she calls the poisoned river:

"Sediments were contaminated with metals, such as lead, zinc, mercury. We found out in the study that the EPA did, that in fact those sediments are highly contaminated with metals. Sometimes 900 times background, or what they should be. It's outrageous," Stone says.

Paddy Stone
The EPA study earlier this year chronicled a century of pollution from the Trail smelter. In addition to the metals from the slag, it cited numerous other toxic spills and discharges of acids and chemicals, including mercury and arsenic.

"Canadian law is much different than the U.S. law," Stone says. "I don't think this would have happened in the United States, at least not as long as it happened. It's really amazing to think that this kind of pollution could happen for so many years and nothing is said about it. But it's a different country."

John Iani
In Seattle, the case Paddy Stone and other have put forward against Teck Cominco is getting a sympathetic hearing from a powerful arm of the U.S. government.

This is where you'll find regional director John Iani and the offices of the Environmental Protection Agency. He believes U.S. environmental law can be extended into Canada.

"In this case, the smelter in Trail discharged significant amounts of metals over the years that clearly went into the Columbia River and into Lake Roosevelt. And so we're trying to get Teck Cominco to bear up to its responsibility," Iani says.

The EPA demanded Teck Cominco sign a legally binding agreement to study, and then under EPA direction, clean up the Columbia. That could cost hundreds of millions of dollars if it leads to dredging up beaches and the lake bottom.

Teck Cominco's senior vice-president Doug Horswill instead offered a scientific study and possible cleanup worth about $13 million, but outside of the EPA's strict framework:

"The EPA approach – if we sign on – leaves you liable to any and all issues the EPA decides to throw into the pot," Horswill says.

But Iani says, "That's the way we do things on our side of the border. We're comfortable with the process. I also think it would be precedent-setting. If we carved out a different approach just because it's a Canadian company, pretty soon there would be U.S. companies saying, 'You did it for them.' I guess we Americans aren't flexible enough."

Mark Edwards
In Trail, the EPA's rejection of the company's offer is being met with defiance from one of Teck Cominco's top scientists, Mark Edwards, who has a PhD in chemistry. He's in charge of pollution control at the smelter and he believes concerns about slag have been overblown:

"My own children swim in the river. They spent many, many days in the river. I have absolutely no concerns about my children doing that," Edwards says.

In 1989, tests confirmed suspended particles of lead in the air were a serious health concern for people in Trail – not just for workers, but also for children.

Production line
The company began replacing its old smelting equipment. The new process is much cleaner and there are far fewer discharges into the air or the Columbia River. The company says an investment of over $1 billion over the past 20 years has made it the cleanest smelter of its kind in the world – and the most productive.

Five per cent of the world's zinc rolls off the production lines. Shimmering silver liquids are poured into moulds 24 hours a day. Technicians test the metal to assure it's 99.9 per cent pure and then skim off the imperfections.

Some of the bars of zinc will be used to galvanize roofing products, others to make toy cars. Elsewhere, in the smelter, chemicals and byproducts end up in batteries, fertilizers and jewelry.

Slag discharge
At the end of the smelting process, water carries the waste away and the slag is what's left. "It's a glassy material that has a metal content of less than three per cent," Edwards says. "At this point, it has the characteristics of sand – iron, silica, calcium, primarily.

"The facts as we know them [are] slag has not had a detrimental effect – the water quality, the metals have not impacted the fish in the lake."

Edwards says slag is safe and harmless. Nonetheless, the company still agreed in 1995 to stop dumping it. That was not long after Canadian scientists concluded copper and zinc can leach from slag into the river:

"We stopped releasing slag into the river because it was the right thing to do," Edwards says. "Our long-term objective is to eliminate the release of all materials into the river."

Bob Jackman
Still, for neighbours of the Trail smelter, the science doesn't seem to square with what they see every day. Bob Jackman is a retired police detective who now spends much of the winter in his workshed in Northport, five minutes south of the border.

He wonders whether a range of illnesses, from cancer to colitis, in those living nearby can be traced to river pollution: "For me, Cominco's lab studies are self-serving," Jackman says. "My personal opinion is that for decades Cominco has used the Columbia as a sewer and Lake Roosevelt as their cesspool."

Citing U.S. law, the EPA says it will now immediately begin a four-year pollution study of the Columbia River. Under the American rules, it can send Teck Cominco the bill and charge the company up to six times the cost.

Teck Cominco
"We're clearly prepared to go as far as we have to go," Iani says. "We clearly have to get an assessment of the human health risk. We believe that Teck Cominco is responsible.

"Both our lawyers and the government of Canada tell us they [the U.S.] have no jurisdiction. There is no jurisdictional reach of U.S. domestic law to a Canadian company," Horswill says.

How big a stick does the EPA have?

"Obviously, we have courts in the United States, and I'm hoping we don't have to use that stick," Iani says.

"The issue, it seems to us, to have come down to is one of power and authority as opposed to substance. We're there in terms of the substance," Teck Cominco's Horswill says. "But the only thing they're used to is a certain cookie-cutter approach to authority and we're not willing – because were not an American company – to go along with that."

The B.C. government is watching the Trail case– nervously. The company's defence is that it had permits to dump the slag, meaning the province could also be liable.

The stakes are also high for people who live in U.S. towns along the Columbia. Many are siding with Teck Cominco, including local politicians fearful that a thriving boating and summer tourism industry could be damaged if the river is designated a cleanup site.

On the other side, there are people such as Paddy Stone and Tom Louis. He believes his older relatives lived long lives because the Columbia was healthy back then and now that the river is sick, so is he – with leukemia:

"At 113 years, my grandmother smoked two packs a day, I don't know how many my grandfather or my dad [smoked], but that's when they lived off of the river," Louis says.

"We should be able to tell our tribal membership that they can fish, they can subsistence fish here, we can't tell them that now," Stone says. "We should be able to go down and gather. We should be able to sweat – that's our church. So it's a challenge, to explain why this is important to our tribe and to our members. We are very connected to the river."

Paddy Stone fears time is running out for the Columbia, but it appears the cross-border fight over who pays for a century of pollution is only just beginning.



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