River's Toxic Brew
by Cassandra Profita
EPA puts priority on Columbia River cleanup, but funding is still uncertain
Experts say it's tough to tell exactly where contaminants such as DDT, PCB and PAH are entering the Columbia River.
But it's no mystery where these toxics end up.
"Everything comes down to Astoria," said Mary Lou Soscia, director of the water and watersheds office for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The river's toxic brew reveals itself in the sediment along the banks, in the crayfish and salmon that feed on microorganisms and insects, and in the birds that eat the fish. Many are worried about the implications for people who consume the accumulated contaminants in the river's salmon and sturgeon. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has research that shows toxics can have damaging effects on endangered fish species.
In response to tests that show potentially dangerous levels of contamination throughout the river's ecosystem, the EPA has named the Columbia River Basin a "national priority" and pledged to reduce toxics in the water and fish tissue by 10 percent in five years. The federal agency is spearheading a strategic plan for reaching that goal.
"The Columbia River is one of the seven most important water bodies in the entire U.S.," said Soscia. "The EPA is stepping up and saying there are problems in this river. Our hope is that as we move forward on this work, as we understand the river better, the action we'll be taking could have a direct effect on Astoria."
The details reportedly shocked Joan Dukes, the region's former state senator who now has a leadership role on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
State and local leaders who have been working to regulate and clean up toxics for decades are optimistic that the strategy will work - that by pooling resources with the EPA they can piece together the puzzle of toxics in the river. They're also hoping more federal dollars will go toward making the river cleaner and healthier in the future.
Like the pollution from upriver, clean-up efforts spanning the 1,200 miles of the river system all the way to Idaho will have a trickle-down effect in the estuary - reducing the toxics that could travel down the mainstem over time.
It's a small consolation for agencies such as the Port of Astoria that face strict regulations every time they need to handle the contaminated sediment at the mouth of the river. And it's just a step toward ensuring the health of all the living things that rely on the river.
Legacy toxics hanging around
Technically, DDT and PCB shouldn't be in the river at all - they've been outlawed for decades. Yet, year after year, these pollutants show up on sediment tests in the estuary, creating expenses and headaches for local ports looking to dredge.
Kevin Masterson, toxics coordinator for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said the pesticide DDT has attached itself to sediment and settled on the river bottom. Because it's slow to break down, DDT that was applied to crops upriver in the 1960s could still be buried along the banks of the estuary in Astoria. The other problem is banning DDT and PCB doesn't make them disappear from old barns and industrial sites, where erosion and leakage can wash fresh doses of them into the river without notice.
"Clearly the stuff on the bottom is not going away," said Masterson. "It's going to take a multipronged effort to clean it up. Hopefully, legacy pesticide collections and other source controls make it so it doesn't get worse."
Part of the EPA's plan for these legacy toxics is to remove as many of them from their known locations as possible. The agency has already begun removing the industrial contaminants PCB and PAH from the Superfund site in Portland Harbor and the Bradford Island site, both more than 100 miles upriver from Astoria. Soscia said despite these efforts, there is evidence of PCB in the water column, indicating it is still being released into the river from somewhere.
She doesn't know where.
Last month, the DEQ collected 17,000 pounds of chemicals from farmers in Marion County, who were invited to dispose of their toxic waste anonymously at the state's expense. Leftover DDT made up more than three-quarters of the chemicals received. Though it is a state-sponsored event, Masterson said the EPA has helped secure funds for DEQ do similar events in the future. While the concept is new to Oregon, Washington has been reclaiming legacy pesticides for years.
"People have a lot of stuff sitting around, and we really don't know what's happening to it," said Soscia. "If it's sitting around there's a good chance it's getting into the environment - or that it could be getting into environment six months from now."
Dukes, of Svensen, who is vice-chairwoman of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, recently heard a presentation on the EPA's strategy. She said she left the meeting with a "shocking" picture of the toxics that exist in the river. The EPA reported crayfish from behind Bonneville Dam tested such high levels of toxics they had to be disposed of at a hazardous waste site in Arlington.
"I don't think too much in the Columbia shocks me anymore, but that shocked me," said Dukes.
Soscia said one of the major catalysts for the EPA's involvement in the river system was research from the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission that showed high levels of contaminants in fish tissue and reports that tribal members eat up to nine times more fish than the general population. Water quality standards are largely based on what levels of toxics are considered safe for human consumption.
"We knew we needed to try to understand what's in these fish," she said.
Every year, the Port of Astoria finds its own evidence of toxics when it tests the sediment in its slips and marinas. Jim Bergeron, a Port commissioner and retired Sea Grant extension agent, has been involved in efforts to understand the river for decades.
"I've heard people say this area shouldn't be called the mouth of the Columbia River," said Bergeron.
The EPA has been helpful in funding scientific studies in the past, said Bergeron, but he has yet to hear of a solution for the legacy pollutants already in the river sediment.
"I think it's going to be very difficult for them to do much in the way of removing these things from the river," said Bergeron. "It's been 20, 30 years, and they're still there."
Agnes Lut, Columbia River Coordinator for DEQ, has been involved in developing the EPA's strategic plan for a year and a half. She cited a Washington Department of Ecology report on DDT and PCB in the lower Columbia River, from Bonneville Dam to the mouth. The report confirmed the problem of toxics, she said, but it left the EPA wanting to know what the rest of the river system looked like.
As part of the EPA's plan, the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership is monitoring other parts of the river to fill in pieces of data so cleanup efforts can be more comprehensive. The LCREP report should be available this spring.
"There's no sustained monitoring system geared toward the ultimate reduction of these chemicals," said LCREP Director Debrah Marriott. "We don't know where toxics are moving in the system. And we don't have adequately funded programs to get toxics out of the system."
The EPA is also putting together a map of all toxics to be reduced throughout the system. The map should be available on the EPA Web site by the end of this month. Given the amount of information that is still unknown, the federal goals for toxics reduction are appropriate, said Lut.
"A 10 percent reduction in toxics concentrations in fish tissues and in the water may seem like a small amount but it takes a pretty large effort to see those kinds of reductions in such a short period," said Lut. "We're starting with something we know we can do."
A major benefit of the federal involvement is it integrates efforts that were previously more isolated, said Soscia.
"There's some information we don't know and won't know for years," said Soscia. "We do know that there are pollutants in the estuary now. We're looking forward to doing more monitoring."
More funding needed
The river and its mix of toxics are getting a lot of attention. Officials are hoping the attention will lead to more federal funding for more clean-up activities.
With the "priority" designation, Lut said the funds are more likely to flow from federal coffers to Columbia River projects. But they haven't yet.
Dukes said she is impressed with the EPA's plans, but they need the financial backing that only the U.S. Congress can provide. Having fought for Bonneville Power Administration funding for estuary projects, Dukes said she knows firsthand "there's never enough funding to do the things we need to do."
"I hope Congress will come forth with the funding," she said. "This special designation allows Congress to provide funding. ... I hope Congress will see the importance of this river system."
Lut said the federal attention has meant additional funding and real improvements for other water bodies such as the Chesapeake Bay.
"Look at Chesapeake Bay," she said. "Once it was declared a national water body the water quality really turned around - I think we have high hopes here that we'll actually get resources and be able to reduce some of the pollutants we're seeing."
Other pollutants detected
Not all the river's pollution is left over from the past. New, or "emergent" contaminants are also being detected in the river. Among them are the flame retardants PBDEs and traces of pharmaceuticals, such as Prozac and antibiotics that presumably get flushed down the toilet and end up in the river. Officials say they haven't studied the effects of these new contaminants on the food chain. But the new monitoring system will take legacy and emergent contaminants into consideration as the agencies work together to reach the 2011 goal: To restore and protect the Columbia River Basin.
Andrew Kolosseus, an environmental specialist for Washington Ecology, said his agency is contributing to the effort by examining the proper limits of contaminants that should be entering the river under "Total Maximum Daily Load" or TMDL requirements. Stormwater and wastewater from urban infrastructure can carry pollution into the river, and a key to keeping it under control is setting TMDL standards.
"If the things we're already doing are not enough, what are we going to do?" he asked. "It's a big process the EPA is leading."
Soscia said by fall 2008, the EPA expects to release a "state of the river" report to "assemble all the information and tell the story as best we can."
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