by Editorial Board
The Columbian, January 26, 2009
Plenty of deadly pollutants remain in the Columbia River Basin
Evoking memories of Rachel Carson's book, "Silent Spring" and its doomsday warning about the chemical DDT, a recent Environmental Protection Agency report says active toxins still lurk in the Columbia River Basin, posing a serious threat to humans, fish and wildlife.
Elected officials and government agency workers must remain vigilant in this issue. DDT - a pesticide banned in 1972 after devastating effects on bald eagles, ospreys and other species - still poses a risk in parts of the Basin.
Other pollutants such as fire retardants and mercury are found at unacceptable levels, according to the EPA report, compiled from two years of data from state and federal agencies.
The Columbia River Basin includes most of three states - Washington, Oregon and Idaho - and parts of Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and Canada.
"Hot spots," identified in an Associated Press story by Jeff Barnard, are the Spokane River; Willamette and Lower Columbia between the two states.
At Vancouver, the most populous city directly on the Columbia River, Columbian writer Kathie Durbin recounted the closure of the Alcoa smelter in 2005, which "left behind a nasty stew of PCBs" that the state EPA ordered removed in 2007. Existence of the chemical, found in electrical equipment, was revealed in 1997.
And 45 miles upstream from Vancouver at Bonneville Dam, Durbin wrote, workers got rid of three electrical capacitors in 1969 by "shoving them into the Columbia, contaminating the river with PCB-laden oil." Finally, 38 years later, the Army Corps of Engineers began a cleanup. Crayfish dredged from the river bottom contained so much PCB in their tissue they were considered hazardous waste.
While DDT is on the wane, a new source of pollution - a fire retardant with the tongue-twisting name polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) - is showing up in increasing amounts. It is sometimes used in laptop computers, clothing and furniture. Trout in the Spokane River contained levels of PBDE starting from zero in 1996 to 400 parts per billion in 2005.
"We are very concerned about it," Mary Lou Soscia, told the AP. "We don't want it to become the PCB or DDT of the future."
Mercury is hard to control because it results from burning coal and rides the atmosphere around the world. The Oregonian published a chart in connection with its report of toxins in the Columbia Basin. Mercury can cause neurological and reproductive problems in people and animals. PCBs can harm hormonal, immune and reproductive systems and pose a cancer risk, human and aquatic. PBDEs can harm mammals' reproductive and nervous systems.
So much for the hand-wringing. What's being done? Some PBDEs are being phased out by industry, but other usage continues. Washington has banned the chemical when alternatives are found. Cleanup of contaminated sites is active at Portland Harbor, Hanford nuclear reservation and Lake Roosevelt. Erosion control is occurring in the Yakima Basin to reduce pesticide runoff. A collaborative effort is under way in the Hood River and Walla Walla basins to diminish pesticide contamination, Durbin reported. EPA's Northwest administrator Elin Miller has called for increased toxic reduction efforts, "once we understand these sources better."
The pace of toxic reduction must quicken. Columbia Riverkeeper, an environmental group, praised the EPA report, labeling it a siren call to do more in the future. The threat to Columbia Basin and downriver residents, fish and wildlife cannot languish. Greater energy must be found to clean up, control and banish this pollution menace.
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