Summit Seeks Ways to Curb
by Erik Robinson
The Columbia River is polluted, no doubt about it.
Researchers continue to find so-called "legacy" pollutants, such as polychlorinated biphenyls, a carcinogen lingering in the environment three decades after production was banned in the U.S. And they're also finding a slew of new contaminants, such as chemical concoctions that migrate through our bodies, past ill-equipped wastewater treatment plants and into the river.
We know all this, but no one is sure exactly what to do about it.
On Friday, the Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership will convene the latest in a series of "summit" meetings that have been held over the years to address toxic pollution in the Columbia. Elin Miller, regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle, is due to attend with state Rep. Deb Wallace, D-Vancouver, and Oregon Rep. Jackie Dingfelder, D-Portland.
In October of 1999, then-Washington Gov. Gary Locke and Oregon's John Kitzhaber got together in the same building where Friday's summit will take place - the city of Vancouver's Water Resources Education Center. At the time, the two governors agreed to deputize a relatively new bistate organization - the Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership - to carry out a slate of projects to improve natural habitat along 146 miles of the Columbia from Bonneville Dam to the river's mouth.
"We're making a choice to leave to future generations of the Northwest a healthy, pure river," Kitzhaber said at the time.
The partnership has followed through with a variety of habitat improvements, monitoring and education initiatives. However, it has been much slower to identify and reduce toxic pollution in the river.
Bureaucratic inertia may be the biggest hurdle of all.
Even as Locke and Kitzhaber were vowing to get serious about a clean Columbia, a highly polluted stretch of shoreline languished near the former Alcoa aluminum smelter just a few miles downriver. The PCB-tainted shoreline was discovered in 1997, but the state Department of Ecology has yet to force a cleanup - even though the contaminated area is well-defined, the responsible party accepts its culpability, and Alcoa has ample financial resources.
In November, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire ordered Ecology to hasten the cleanup - but only after researchers discovered alarmingly high levels of PCBs in the tissue of clams in the area.
Cleaning up a river that drains a landscape the size of France is inherently daunting.
The Columbia has long served as an industrial workhorse for the benefit of the Pacific Northwest's economy. Its 1,200-mile shoreline teems with factories, vast swaths of farmland, a notoriously polluted nuclear reservation and hundreds of thousands of people shedding the detritus of modern life - everything from motor oil to soap suds.
At the same time, scientists are becoming increasingly adept at identifying pollutants in the water.
"We're looking for more things at lower levels than we ever have before," said Ron Wierenga, a water resources scientist who works for Clark County.
The summit on Friday serves as a follow-up to a science-oriented conference last year in Vancouver. Participants in that conference stressed the need for more research and monitoring to better understand the level of toxic contaminants, their origins and how to reduce them.
Wallace and Dingfelder agreed to sustain cross-river dialogue about the issue, said Debrah Marriott, the partnership's executive director.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is focusing new attention on reducing toxic pollution in the river.
The EPA in 2006 included the Columbia cleanup among the country's highest priorities, on par with Puget Sound, Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, Long Island Sound and the Florida Everglades.
Brent Foster, director of the environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper, said he hopes that policymakers follow through this time.
"Ultimately, it's all about money," Foster said. "If you had the Feds come in and do a Columbia River (cleanup) project akin to what they did in the Everglades, you could do a range of things that would result in significant and rapid toxic-load reductions.
What: Lower Columbia River pollution summit, a cross-river discussion about reducing toxic contaminants in the Columbia.
Who: Co-hosted by state Rep. Deb Wallace, D-Vancouver, and Oregon Rep. Jackie Dingfelder, D-Portland.
When: 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Friday.
Where: Water Resources Education Center, 4600 S.E. Columbia Way, Vancouver.
Cleanup is active
Readers of the Jan. 3 story, "Summit seeks ways to curb Columbia River pollution," may not have a complete picture of the major work done to complete the cleanup at the former Alcoa aluminum plant near Vancouver.
The story reads, "The PCB-tainted shoreline was discovered in 1997, but the state Department of Ecology has yet to force a cleanup - even though the contaminated area is well-defined, the responsible party accepts its culpability, and Alcoa has ample financial resources." Alcoa has spent $42 million on a comprehensive site cleanup so far.
A critical PCB cleanup began in 1997 when we ordered Alcoa to clean up the highly contaminated onsite landfill. As a result, we at the Washington Department of Ecology believe we have shut off the source of contaminants into the Columbia River. We had to stop the source of contamination before starting the complex job of cleaning up river sediments.
Now that the onshore source control is nearly complete, the DOE and Alcoa have an aggressive schedule for cleaning up river sediments. Both parties have accelerated the detailed prep work so that in-river dredging can begin. The DOE will debut a Web site so readers can keep tabs on our progress. Please visit www.ecy.wa.gov.
Carol Kraege, Olympia
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