Columbia River Toxins
by Craig Welch
VANCOUVER, Wash. -- First were the crayfish near Bonneville Dam, so loaded with toxins that scientists wondered how they could still be alive.
Then researchers learned Columbia River fish were contaminated enough that nearby tribes face dramatically higher risks of disease. Scientists since have found deformed sturgeon, uranium building up in clams near the Hanford nuclear reservation, and water in parts of the last stretch of the river as contaminated as Seattle's Duwamish River, a federal Superfund site.
Over the past five years, virtually unnoticed amid other issues, scientists have unearthed a wealth of new information detailing the extent of toxic contamination in the Columbia River, enough that the Environmental Protection Agency added the entire 1,200-mile river to a shortlist of major waterways demanding national attention.
"Salmon recovery and dams have been what people have been focused on," said Mary Lou Soscia, who coordinates Columbia River pollution issues for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "But you can't talk about a healthy Columbia without talking about toxics."
Two centuries after Lewis and Clark followed the river on their final push to the Pacific, the federal government, states and tribes are embarking on an unusually systematic attempt to assess how pollution in the Columbia is altering Northwest ecology.
So far the steps being taken are rudimentary, with modest goals: identify the worst contaminants, figure out where they are coming from, and reduce them by 10 percent in fish and water in five years. But those next few years could lay the groundwork for grander restoration efforts to come.
"The Columbia is a huge, dynamic river system," said Michael Gearheard, who oversees water issues for the EPA in the Northwest. "Is it in crisis? No. But there are areas that merit concern. We want to understand where contamination is coming from, and make sure it is stopped."
It's hardly a secret that the Columbia River is polluted. It's been known for years that heavy metals have washed into Lake Roosevelt from a mine in British Columbia, and that Portland Harbor was contaminated by decades of boat-building and steel-milling.
But some of the findings of the past several years have caught officials off-guard:
Few American rivers have been asked to do as much as the Columbia and its tributaries.
The river system provides recreation and drinking water and helps irrigate a quarter-million square miles of sage desert. It's a highway for farm goods. Thanks to 55 dams, it supplies the cheapest power in the nation, and a lot of it.
Yet unlike Puget Sound, which has been systematically monitored for years, the Columbia system is so huge and regulated by so many different entities that attempts to assess its health have been piecemeal at best.
"It's just unbelievable that all our information on the Columbia is scattered in about 20 different places," said the EPA's Soscia.
For instance, in 2005 the state Department of Ecology found that PCBs and DDT in the lower river regularly exceeded water-quality standards. But the study didn't examine the water upstream of Bonneville Dam, even though researchers believe most DDT is coming from agricultural land above Bonneville.
Meanwhile, large-scale cleanup projects on the Columbia proceed slowly.
The Army Corps of Engineers began investigating a landfill near Bonneville Dam 10 years ago, but it still isn't clean. Seven years ago, the Colville Confederated Tribes urged the EPA to find out whether mining pollution in the Upper Columbia was harming their health. The agency is still investigating.
"It's been our sense that Puget Sound gets far more attention with respect to water quality, restoration and basic protection," said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission. "We sometimes feel Western Washington considers Eastern Washington a sacrifice zone."
In fact, it's often difficult to measure how much has really changed since a major study of the river concluded in the mid-1990s that the Columbia contains "potentially harmful levels" of toxics.
"Based on what I'm familiar with, I think levels in the Columbia are better than they were in the 1960s," said Lyndal Johnson, a toxicologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"But I don't think they've improved much in the last 10 years."
New look at pollution
The EPA, the tribes and the states of Oregon and Washington are hoping to change that.
In the past few years, they have tried coordinating studies to determine the extent of pollution in the river, from Canada to the Pacific.
Later this summer, the results of two detailed studies are expected. One looked at contaminants in the Columbia estuary. The other, by the federal Department of Energy, is a compilation of all available information on the health of the entire river. And this year the Columbia was placed with Puget Sound, the Everglades, Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, Long Island Sound and the Gulf of Mexico on a list of the EPA's top water priorities for the next five years.
For now, that means the EPA expects to propose a series of small projects to clean up river sediment. Soscia said it also would work with Oregon to toughen water-quality standards to reduce the amount of pollution industries are allowed to spill into the river.
Some of the work already has begun.
A few years ago, Eugene Foster, an Oregon state toxicologist, began working with some farmers to help them cut back on agricultural runoff that was contaminating tributaries with chemicals and insecticide.
Now the orchardists are changing how and where they apply pesticides. They have been better managing how water passes over soil that still has DDT in it. And they are reducing pesticide concentrations.
Similar work has been done along the Yakima River, and both Washington and Oregon are slowly expanding those programs to other Columbia tributaries.
"We've got a marathon ahead of us," Soscia said.
But, "I've worked at EPA for 22 years," she added.
"This is the most important thing I could do in my last years at the agency."
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