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Monday, June 21, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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B.C. smelter linked to mercury in Columbia River

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SPOKANE — Newly obtained documents reveal the Teck Cominco smelter in British Columbia dumped tons of highly toxic mercury into the Columbia River for decades.

The smelter's record of dumping contaminated slag, a smelting byproduct, has been known for years.

But documents The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review obtained from British Columbia's Ministry of the Environment shed new light on the extent of mercury releases from the lead-zinc smelter in Trail, B.C., about six miles north of the Washington border.

Calculations based on two Canadian estimates indicate that 1.6 tons to 3.6 tons of mercury had been discharged into the river each year since the 1940s, the newspaper reported.

Mercury is a highly toxic metal that, in sufficient doses, can cause neurological damage in developing fetuses.

An October 1981 memo from B.C.'s environment ministry said Cominco had deposited about 20 pounds of mercury a day into the Columbia over many years.

Washington state officials said they were surprised by the numbers.

"We weren't aware of the quantities you are talking about," Flora Goldstein, director of the Washington Department of Ecology's toxics program in Spokane, told The Spokesman-Review. "The province and the company have not been forthcoming about this."

Mark Edwards, Teck Cominco's manager for environment, safety and health, said he doubts the plant's releases were that high in the early 1980s.

He said the company estimates the smelter released 9 pounds of mercury into the Columbia each day and has since reduced releases to 0.07 pounds a day.

Teck Cominco officials are resisting a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) order to study the contamination, insisting that U.S. cleanup laws don't apply to them. They've offered an alternative study that would sidestep Superfund cleanup regulations. U.S. and Canadian diplomats are discussing the matter behind closed doors.

The documents obtained by the newspaper were written in response to a 6,300-pound mercury spill into the Columbia in March 1980. Cominco didn't report the spill to authorities for five weeks.

Shortly after the spill, mercury levels in Lake Roosevelt — a 130-mile impoundment of the Columbia behind the Grand Coulee Dam — exceeded drinking-water standards.

In May 1980, the B.C. government tested fish south of the smelter and found that rainbow-trout tissue showed mercury levels twice Canada's safety threshold of 0.5 parts per million.

Two months later, more tests showed that sport fish had mercury levels below that level but that bottom-feeding squawfish had mercury levels of 0.79 ppm.

After a protracted legal battle, Cominco was fined $5,000. The province could have fined the company up to $1 million, the newspaper reported.

"Cominco fought back hard," said Don Skogstad, a Nelson, B.C., lawyer now in private practice who prosecuted the case for the province.

R.H. Ferguson, director of pollution control for the B.C. Ministry's waste-management branch, wrote a summary of the 1980 spill and said it did not appear that limiting pollution was a high priority for the company.

"Since the turn of the century, the Columbia River has been used by the company as a repository for a vast array of its highly contaminated wastes, sludges and accidental spills. The attitude of its employees that such discharges are legitimate and will not have adverse long-term environmental impacts on the Columbia River appears widespread," Ferguson wrote.

Several years later, B.C. officials decided against warning the public about elevated mercury levels in fish downstream from the smelter, saying people probably were safe if they ate only one meal of fish a week.

In 1997, Cominco built a new smelter at Trail that has helped reduce discharges by 99 percent. But monitoring reports show the company at times continues to exceed its Canadian permit limits for mercury and other heavy metals.

On 86 days between September 1987 and May 2001, Cominco reported spills, including 1,923 pounds of mercury. Cominco was charged twice over the spills in 1989 under Canada's Waste Management Act. It pleaded guilty and was fined $30,000 by the Rossland Provincial Court, according to the newspaper.

In 1989, the Washington Department of Social and Health Services said more studies of Lake Roosevelt were needed because fish exceeding mercury levels had been found on the Canadian side of the border.

In the early 1990s, a Washington resident concerned about mercury in Lake Roosevelt contacted the EPA's regional office in Seattle. An EPA emergency-response coordinator worked up a plan to investigate mercury in Lake Roosevelt sediments, but it wasn't pursued.

"It was a management call. At the time, it appeared that money was better spent on more immediate emergencies," said Thor Cutler, the EPA coordinator who drafted the plan.

In 1999, the Colville Confederated Tribes petitioned the EPA to determine whether Lake Roosevelt should be declared a Superfund site.

After a preliminary survey, the EPA found widespread industrial pollution in sediments throughout the upper Columbia, including elevated lead levels near Northport, high mercury levels near Kettle Falls and high zinc levels near the border with Canada.

Last December, Teck Cominco offered to spend up to $13 million for studies to assess human health and ecological concerns but maintained it is not subject to the U.S. Superfund law governing cleanup of industrial waste.

As negotiations continue, the EPA is using Superfund dollars to move ahead with its own study of Lake Roosevelt and the upper Columbia, which EPA project manager Cami Grandinetti said could take two to four years to complete.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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