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EPA Report Finds Toxics
Throughout Columbia River Basin

by Kathie Durbin
The Columbian, January 15, 2009

Highly toxic and persistent chemical compounds contaminate the Columbia River basin and continue to move through the food chain, threatening the health of humans, fish and wildlife, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study released Thursday.

The contaminants addressed in the study include the pesticide DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and the industrial chemical PCB (Polychlorinated biphenyl), both banned since the 1970s.

The study also focuses on the presence of mercury and a more recent addition to the river environment, the flame retardant PBDE (Polybrominated diphenyl).

"This is troubling news," said EPA Regional Administrator Elin Miller in a statement. "Today's report shows that toxics are found throughout the basin at levels that could harm people, fish, and wildlife.

"Federal, tribal, state, and local efforts have reduced levels of some toxics, such as PCBs and DDTs. But in many areas, they continue to pose an unacceptable risk.

"Tackling this problem will require a coordinated effort by all levels of government, tribes, interest groups and the public."

Although populations bald eagles, ospreys and other species have rebounded over the past two decades, the study found that concentrations of mercury and PBDEs were increasing in wildlife and fish.

For example, it found nearly a fourfold increase in PBDEs in some fish species in the Spokane River between 1996 and 2005.

The study also found that mercury levels had increased in osprey eggs in the Lower Columbia and in northern pikeminnows in the Willamette River over the past decade.

Miller said a lack of monitoring for toxics along some sections of the river made it difficult to know if toxics were increasing or decreasing over time.

"These information gaps need to be filled by more monitoring and stronger agency coordination so we can better understand the toxic effects on the river ecosystem and agree on priority projects to reduce these toxics," she said.

Lauren Goldberg, staff attorney for the environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper, praised the EPA report as a call to action.

"Columbia Riverkeeper has been advocating for tougher pollution controls for years," she said. "Toxic pollution is a serious problem throughout the Columbia Basin. Columbia Riverkeeper believes the EPA report demonstrates the failures of the past, but it's also a siren call to do more in the future."

About 100 volunteers help the organization do its own monitoring of water quality in the river, Goldberg said.

The report notes that many efforts already are underway to reduce toxics in the basin, including:

The Columbia River Basin State of the River Report for Toxics represents the work of more than 20 federal and state agencies, tribes, local governments and other organizations.

The basin drains nearly 260,000 square miles across seven U.S. states and a Canadian province.

Kathie Durbin
EPA Report Finds Toxics Throughout Columbia River Basin
The Columbian, January 15, 2009

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