June 2, 2006

Deal reached on Columbia River pollution study

By Allan Dowd

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Canadian miner Teck Cominco Ltd. and U.S. environmental regulators said on Friday they have struck deal in their cross-border fight over pollution in a Columbia River lake.

Teck will fund an environmental and health study of decades of slag discharges from its Canadian smelter that were carried by the river into Lake Roosevelt in Washington state. The study will be overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Teck, Canadian and U.S. officials have fought for years over whether the jurisdiction of U.S. environmental law extends over the border to pollution sources in Canada when the impact is felt in the United States.

Sand-like slag was discharged from Teck's lead and zinc smelter in Trail, British Columbia, into the river for decades and became sediment in Lake Roosevelt when the reservoir was created with the building of the Grand Coulee Dam in 1941.

Vancouver-headquartered Teck argues the metal-containing slag is not a health risk, but some residents near the lake -- a popular recreational site -- say fish in the area have been found to have unsafe toxin levels.

Teck had offered to fund studies of potential health risks, and said Friday the deal resolves its objections to doing it under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Superfund law that could make it liable for massive clean-up costs.

"Even though the studies will be done consistent with all guidance and requirements of the federal law, what it doesn't require is that we accept liability under Superfund," said David Godlewski, a vice-president of environmental affairs at Teck's U.S. unit.

The EPA said the deal was "fully enforceable and is consistent with U.S. Superfund models and policy," and would avoid years of costly litigation.

The agency had been sued by native Indians in the area west of Spokane, Washington, who have accused officials of not taking a tough enough stand against Teck.

The Colville Confederated Tribes said it was uneasy about the settlement, and noted there was "no process in place to pay for clean up of contamination to U.S. or tribal standards."

"It gives Teck Cominco a tremendous amount of flexibility and we gave grave concerns that it won't protect the health and welfare of tribal resources, tribal members and other U.S. citizens," D.R. Michel, chairman of the tribe's natural resources committee, said in a statement.

Officials did not estimate how much the multi-year study will cost, but Teck has agreed to put $20 million on deposit.

The study will look at the risk to people and the environment from sediment contamination on 150 miles of river from the Canadian border to the Grand Coulee Dam. The smelter in Trail is located about 10 miles north of the border.

The smelter opened in 1892 and is still in operation, but the company stopped slag discharges into the river in 1994.

($1=$1.10 Canadian)