Canadian Smelter Pollution meets U.S. Resolutionby Joel Connelly, P-I Columnist
In The Northwest, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 12, 2003
The huge lead and zinc smelter at Trail, B.C., looms like a forbidding black castle over the Columbia River.
A cross-border showdown is now looming over its potentially poisonous secrets.
During six decades of its life, the smelter dumped nearly 10 million tons of black slag into the river, some of which has flowed far enough to coat shores in the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has given TeckCominco, the smelter operator, a Dec. 10 deadline to agree voluntarily to clean up heavy metals deposited south of the border.
If there is no accord, the EPA has authority to designate Lake Roosevelt as a federal Superfund cleanup site and go after the Canadian-based firm to pay the bills.
TeckCominco is intensively lobbying the EPA, in the words of environmental manager Dave Godlewski, to "keep the club in the closet."
Still, even under a voluntary accord, the EPA would oversee and serve as final judge of the cleanup. Canadian industry is not used to playing by such rules.
A major British Columbia employer, the Trail Smelter has rarely received even a slap on the wrist from agencies in the Great White North.
When 6,300 pounds of mercury was accidentally discharged into the Columbia River in 1980, the company paid a fine of just $5,000.
Canada has applied the same approach seen in Victoria's daily discharges of raw sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The solution to pollution is dilution.
Even a new, pro-environment British Columbia government in 1992 gave the smelter a permit to pour up to 200 tons of sulfuric acid a day into the Columbia River.
In the same year, the smelter spilled 187 pounds of mercury and 855 tons of sulfur dioxide into the river. In several cases -- documented by The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review -- alarms did not sound and discharges were not reported.
But bad days at the Trail Smelter may be done. TeckCominco argues that it has stepped up to the plate, brought in new technology and cleaned up its act.
A sweeping modernization reduced air emissions by 95 percent. Dumping of slag into the river, averaging 450 tons a day, was halted in 1996.
Once-alarming lead blood levels in Trail children have declined of late. The company created a Trail Lead Task Force to monitor the problem.
"The remediation we're doing on the Canadian side is not under compulsion. ... If it's possible to do it voluntarily up there, why not be able to do it here?" asked Doug Horswill, TeckCominco's vice president for corporate affairs.
Because that's not how environmental laws work in the United States, explained Region X EPA chief John Iani.
"What I've told them is that our government doesn't operate that way," Iani said. "If there are steps that must be taken, the company must take those steps."
"The command and control structure of our laws is a bit unnerving to them. The majority of issues between us are how legally they will be bound to (clean up) and who else needs to be at the table."
The EPA-TeckCominco face-off is the second major transboundary pollution issue to arise on the shores of Lake Roosevelt in recent years.
In the early 1990s, the state posted warnings at docks urging vacationers to limit consumption of bottom-dwelling whitefish caught in the lake.
The reason was toxic furans carried downstream from the Chinese-owned Celgar pulp mill at Castlegar, B.C. The mill has since made changes in the bleaching process that polluted the river.
TeckCominco is learning to play American politics and deploying its economic clout.
The smelter is in Canada, but prime sources of its ore are in the United States. Zinc concentrate comes from the Red Dog Mine in Alaska. And TeckCominco is due to open, in 2004, a $74 million zinc mine near Metaline Falls, to supply ore to Trail.
The company has won support for voluntary cleanup from rural counties around Lake Roosevelt. In a region beset by unemployment, the zinc mine is a potential economic gold mine.
The smelter operator has retained lobbying help from the Gallatin Group -- a corporate strategy firm that deploys former senior aides to Northwest politicians.
In the opposite camp are the Colville and Spokane Indians, who have petitioned for a Superfund designation of Lake Roosevelt. A 1999 petition from the Colvilles pushed the EPA into action.
Tribes have a case, not just legally but under basic American traditions of fairness.
Grand Coulee Dam destroyed Indians' historic upstream salmon fishery. Kettle Falls was once one of the continent's premier Native American gathering places.
As well, a gold discovery early in the 20th century caused Congress to chop the Colvilles' reservation in half.
Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area was once known for campgrounds stinking of cow pies and buzzing with yellow jackets. Recently, however, houseboating has caused recreation use to surge. A clean lake would be an economic engine for the Colville and Spokane tribes.
Iani has gone boat camping on the 130-mile-long reservoir and come to appreciate its remote, scenic upper reaches near the Canadian border.
The EPA's boss in the Northwest is a former fishing industry lobbyist and onetime aide to Alaska's Sen. Frank Murkowski and Rep. Don Young. Both politicians are boomers and blustering critics of all things green.
Befitting a guy born in Kodiak, Alaska, however, Iani shows a talent for negotiating slippery decks.
He massaged a plan for cleaning up mining and lead contamination in Idaho's Silver Valley and the Couer d'Alene Basin, overcoming initial strident criticism from the state's congressional delegation.
Similar skill will be required to get the cleanup process under way at Lake Roosevelt.
"Once again, the Bush administration is going to do what it ought to be doing," Iani breezily remarked ending an interview.
The man also knows how to make a newspaper columnist bite his tongue.
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