Toxics and the Columbia Basin:
by Kathleen Feehan
What do the Columbia Basin, Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound and the Great Lakes have in common? In addition to being large wet places where people fish, boat, work and play, these waters are all suffering from pollution levels that don't allow them to function properly or to meet the needs of the communities that rely on them.
Bonus question: What do the last three great bodies of water have in common that leaves the Columbia as the odd ecosystem out? Answer: Seventy to several hundred million dollars a year from Congress to fix the most important pollution problems facing them.
Our communities throughout the Columbia Basin have used a variety of toxic chemicals for a variety of purposes. The toxic legacy we've created continues to affect the health of our rivers, fish and people today. Toxic cleanups are never inexpensive. Cleaning up a 1,200-mile river and an approximately 259,000-square-mile basin will require substantial and sustained funding. Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon have introduced S3025 and HR4652, the Columbia River Restoration Act of 2010, which would authorize funding to study and clean up toxic pollution in the Columbia. This legislation addresses a longstanding need to understand the Columbia's toxic history and employ new toxic reduction practices to restore our river and our fisheries. Whenever new funding authorization is considered, it's important to take a realistic look at the economic cost associated with the circumstances.
We must understand what the toxic condition of the Columbia is costing us to assess the value of a potential $40 million annual investment in addressing the source of those costs. The Oregon Environmental Council conducted a study quantifying the cost of environmentally attributable components of asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, lead exposure, birth defects and neurobehavioral disorders. The council's conservative calculations concluded that in Oregon the cost of health effects attributable to unnecessary toxic exposure for adults and children combined is at least $1.57 billion per year. The cost of impacts to children's health alone is $1.10 billion per year.
Because these costs are diffuse and spread across Oregon, we don't recognize them as preventable consequences of allowing our rivers and skies to be treated as toxic waste disposal systems.
We are debating many ideas about what could be done to reduce toxic pollution without any substantial funding to support the answers. It took a long time and a tremendous investment of money and actions to pollute the Columbia Basin to its current state. It is said there is no such thing as a free lunch. Why would there be? It takes good money to make lunch. There is certainly no such thing as a free 259,000-square-mile toxic cleanup. But there is a greater cost to the Columbia and to the future of the Pacific Northwest if we fail to begin the long and difficult task of correcting past pollution mistakes and changing the way we live with the Columbia.
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