Environmental Legacy Looms Over Teck Smelterby Mark Hume
The Globe And Mail, December 5, 2010
The Teck smelter that looms over the town of Trail, on the banks of the Columbia River in southeast British Columbia, is a big industrial complex that boasts some of the world's best environmental technologies.
But it also has a dark past and is haunted by problems the extent of which still aren't fully understood.
Over the past 30 years, the company has sunk more than $1-billion into improving the smelter's environmental performance, and it has done so with some dramatic results, reducing the release of granulated slag into the river from thousands of tonnes annually to zero, for example.
Because of smokestack controls and more careful management of solid wastes, there has been a huge improvement in the blood lead levels in the community's children over the past 18 years. A recent health survey said, "Trail is at the forefront of smelter communities in terms of low lead emissions and blood lead levels."
But despite all the good work, Teck remains haunted by an environmental legacy that dates back 60 years.
In 2003, long after Teck had started to clean up its act, it was taken to court in Washington State because of U.S. concerns about pollution in the Columbia and Lake Roosevelt, into which the river flows.
The result of that unusual case, which saw a Canadian company being sued over pollutants discharged in Canada, was that Teck signed a settlement agreement in 2006 with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Under the deal, Teck put $20-million (U.S.) in escrow as financial assurance of its obligations, and agreed to pay another $1-million annually to fund costs incurred by tribes on two Indian reservations and by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
But Teck's downstream problems aren't over yet.
In recent years, U.S. researchers have been trying to figure out why the white sturgeon population in the Columbia seems headed for extinction.
One study, published last year by the U.S. Geological Survey, sampled the gastrointestinal tracts of 37 juvenile sturgeon captured in the upper part of Lake Roosevelt.
What the researchers found, along with the remains of expected prey items, was a troubling residue of black, smelter slag.
"Slag was present in 76 per cent of the guts examined," states the report.
The bigger and older the fish, the more slag they had -- and the more evidence there was of chronic intestinal inflammation.
The slag, which has been traced to the Teck plant, is sharp, granular material, somewhat like ground glass. The sturgeon ingest it when they feed on the bottom -- and it cuts them up inside.
Studies are continuing, but the sturgeon are sending a clear signal that the slag dumped by Teck 30 years ago didn't go away. It washed down river, coated the bottom and now we know it has made its way into the guts of sturgeon.
It will probably be impossible to clean up the slag underwater. But some of it has washed ashore, and in one place, just a few kilometers south of the U.S. border, it built up so deeply it became known as Black Sand Beach. Teck recently worked with U.S. officials to clean up that beach -- removing 9,100 tons of black slag, which it hauled back to Canada in 647 truckloads.
In Trail, another type of pollution is slowly surfacing.
Recent studies by Environment Canada have confirmed that tainted groundwater is leaking up through the river bed. The source is a slowly moving plume of groundwater that is carrying heavy metals that leached from old waste dumps that stood near the plant, from the 1950s to the 1980s.
Richard Deane, Manager, Energy & Public Affairs for Teck, said the company is doing studies to determine the extent of the problem, and has to come up with a remediation plan by 2012.
"We're not at a point... where we have a cost range or have a feel for the physical work that will be required," he said. But he agrees it will probably be a big job.
The good news about the groundwater plume is that it doesn't appear to be highly toxic. Studies show the fish in the river aren't tainted, and the water, even just downstream from the plant, is clean enough to swim in.
But the magnitude of Teck's problems, both right in Trail and as far downstream as Lake Roosevelt, provides a cautionary tail for both industry and government.
You can dump pollutants into the environment and get away with it for a long time. But eventually the bill comes due. In this case, luckily for taxpayers, Teck, which began its Trail operations in 1892, is still around to own the problem.
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs