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Because of the Toxic Waste, The Columbia River Will Never be the Same

Appeals court sides with Colville Tribe against Canadian mining company for polluting Upper Columbia River

A federal appeals court recently sided with the Colville Tribe of Eastern Washington in a lawsuit claiming that Teck, the largest lead and zinc mining company in the world and formerly known as Teck Cominco Metals, for years had polluted the Upper Columbia River, upon which the tribe relies.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court decision finding a Canadian company is liable for polluting the Upper Columbia River in a hard-fought lawsuit between the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the largest lead and zinc mining company in the world.

In a 55-page opinion issued Sep. 14, federal appellate court judges Ronald M. Gould, Richard A. Paez, and Michael J. McShane upheld a district-court decision that U.S. federal courts do have jurisdiction to find Teck Resources Ltd. (formerly Teck Cominco Metals) liable for polluting the river for close to a century.

A separate lawsuit seeking damages from Teck for lost or damaged natural resources like Chinook salmon has not been scheduled. Any damages from that lawsuit would be used to pay to rehabilitate the river, after a full investigation into the extent and effects of the Upper Columbia River contamination, which is the next step, said Bob Warren, program manager for the toxic cleanup program at the Washington state Department of Ecology.

Teck Metals early 1900

The Colville Tribe had petitioned the Environment Protection Agency in 1999 to hold Teck responsible for contaminating the river that drains into Lake Roosevelt. The EPA ordered the company to assess the damages from the tons of industrial waste, known as slag, that had been dumped into the river since 1930.

Eventually, Teck entered into an agreement with the EPA to clean some of the slag, but Andy Fitz, an attorney from the Attorney General’s Office representing the state of Washington, said it entered the agreement without admitting it was liable. In 2010, Teck removed about 9,100 tons of slag from Black Sand Beach in an agreement with the state’s Department of Ecology.

However, the 9th Circuit panel opinion agreed that the company is responsible for flushing an enormous volume of pollution into the river, including heavy metals. Estimates say upward of 363,000 tons of zinc; 29,000 tons of lead; 1,700 tons of cadmium; 270 tons of arsenic, and 200 tons of mercury were dumped by the company and made their way down the Upper Columbia River.

Teck Metals 1929

Teck attempted to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming it didn’t “expressly” aim its waste at Washington. The panel disagreed, citing internal company documents showing Teck leadership knew the powerful Columbia River was bound to push the slag downstream. “It is inconceivable that Teck did not know that its waste was aimed at the state of Washington,” the opinion says. “Rivers are nature’s conveyor belts.”

Teck challenged the 2008 court judgment ordering it to pay a total of $8.25 million to cover the tribe’s attorney fees and the series of ecological studies the tribe had done on the Upper Columbia River but “It is inconceivable that Teck did not know that its waste was aimed at the state of Washington,” the opinion says. “Rivers are nature’s conveyor belts.”

The company reported profits of $1.2 billion in their second quarter report released this July.

Chairman Cawston accepts that the river will probably never return to its natural state and said the $8.25 million isn’t enough to address the toxic waste in the river, but hopes Teck will “do the right thing.”

“It’s going to take some time, whether that’s going to involve another lawsuit or whether Teck Cominco will just accept its responsibility and begin working to clean up the Upper Columbia,” he said. “I guess that’s just yet to be seen.”

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