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B.C. Smelter Spills Lead, Acid into Columbia River

by Nicolas Geranios
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 14, 2008

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Washington state is monitoring a lead and acid spill into the Columbia River from the massive Teck Cominco lead and zinc smelter just across the border in Trail, British Columbia.

A leak in a lead refinery pipe triggered an alarm late Wednesday afternoon and led to the shutdown of the electrolytic refining plant at the smelter complex on the banks of the Columbia. Some of the acid, which contained lead, ended up in the river, said David W. Godlewski, Teck Cominco American's spokesman in Spokane.

Canadian environmental regulators were immediately notified and then informed their U.S. counterparts, Godlewski said.

Teck Cominco said the spill involved a solution containing hydrofluoric acid and lead.

The spill lasted for about four hours and the Washington Department of Ecology said it was told that approximately 2,100 pounds of lead and 100 gallons of acid were released into the river.

"Historically, Washington's environment has paid the price for pollution released from this facility. We are deeply concerned that this spill could add to that unfortunate legacy," Ecology Director Jay Manning said in a statement.

"We will do what we can to minimize the spill's impact here in Washington to protect Lake Roosevelt and the people who live in the area," Manning said.

British Columbia and Washington state officials were trying to determine possible effects on public health and the environment from the spill. It is unlikely any groundwater wells will be affected because the spill was diluted in the river's spring high-flow conditions, state Ecology officials said.

The Columbia River is running so fast because of winter snowmelt that Teck Cominco believes the acid was almost immediately diluted to non-dangerous levels, Godlewski said.

"It's highly unlikely there would be any risk to human health," he said, and no sign the environment was damaged.

The plant was operating again on Thursday, he said.

Teck Cominco and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have been fighting for years over who must pay to clean up millions of tons of smelter pollutants containing heavy metals and mercury released into the Columbia over a century of smelter operations. The case has international ramifications because the U.S. government is contending that its laws apply to a Canadian company operating in Canada because the pollution crossed the border into the U.S.

The U.S. Supreme Court in January denied an appeal by the Vancouver, British Columbia-based company of a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that said Tech Cominco was responsible for cleaning up the river. Teck Cominco had argued that it's not subject to Superfund cleanup regulations.

In 2006, Teck Cominco reached a deal with EPA to spend $20 million to study the extent of the smelter pollution.

Related Sites:
Teck Cominco
State ecology department

Nicolas Geranios, Associated Press
B.C. Smelter Spills Lead, Acid into Columbia River
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 14, 2008

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