A massive study of industrial pollution in the upper Columbia River is wrapping up its second year of sampling.
Researchers have tested 2,300 fish above Grand Coulee Dam for lead, mercury, arsenic, PCBs and other contaminants. While initial results don’t raise alarm bells for sport fish, higher readings were found in suckers, a long-lived species that prowls the river bottom.
“They’re bottom-feeders, and they ingest a lot of sediment,” said Anne Fairbrother, a scientist working on the study.
Suckers were once part of local tribes’ traditional diet. They also provide food for osprey and other fish-eating birds.
The study is being paid for by Teck Resources Ltd., a Canadian company whose century-old lead smelter in Trail, B.C., discharged millions of tons of industrial waste into the Columbia River over the past century. The releases continued into the mid-1990s.
The study is among the most extensive of its kind, with nearly 400,000 pieces of data collected so far, said Marko Adzic, an environmental engineer for Teck American, the company’s U.S. subsidiary in Spokane. The sampling includes water quality testing and analysis of contaminants in river mud and beach sand.
The study is being done under a 2006 agreement between Teck and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The work will determine whether pollution in the Upper Columbia threatens people and wildlife.
People want to know if it’s safe to eat the fish, swim in the river, or play on the beaches downstream from the smelter, said EPA project manager Helen Bottcher. But definite answers are still a few years away.
“The data we have is preliminary,” Bottcher said last week. “We don’t have enough information to complete the risk assessment.”
An ongoing study by the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, for instance, is gathering information about fish consumption and use of native plants by the tribe’s members.
“We don’t know how many fish people are eating,” Bottcher said, “… or where they are catching them.”
Initial sampling results revealed contaminant levels below national thresholds of concern for most fish species, Bottcher said. However, the thresholds are based on national averages for fish consumption.
In an earlier study of four Columbia River tribes, the tribes’ members ate six to 11 times more fish than the average American.
Tribes could also be exposed to pollution through other avenues, such as breathing in steam in sweat lodges or gathering traditional plants for food, medicine or crafts, Bottcher said.
Recreational studies and testing of beaches are also part of the ongoing work. So far, seven of 35 targeted beaches have been sampled, with the remaining work scheduled for next year.
“We’re worried about the potential for people to be exposed if it’s a hot day and they’re wading in the water, or throwing a Frisbee for their dog,” Bottcher said.
Kids playing in the sand or workers digging ditches could also be at risk, she said. Samples will be taken at depths down to 3 feet to include those possibilities.
Teck isn’t revealing the cost of the multiyear study. But David Godlewski, Teck American’s vice president, said the company put $20 million in an escrow account that the U.S. government could tap if Teck failed to finish the work.
“The intent is that U.S. taxpayers are not out one dime when it comes to this project,” Godlewski said.
While the studies are under way, a 2004 lawsuit filed against Teck by the Colville Confederated Tribes is proceeding. The state of Washington is a party to the suit, which contends that Teck is responsible for hazardous releases from the smelter into the Upper Columbia. The suit is scheduled for trial next year in U.S. District Court in Yakima.
Virgil Seymour Sr., a member of the Colville Tribe, said he’s disappointed that the federal government hasn’t taken stronger steps to hold Teck accountable for historic pollution releases.
“How come it takes a tribe and a state to get this done?” Seymour, a member of the Colville Tribe’s business council, said at a Spokane forum this week.
The Upper Columbia River is not just a resource for the tribes, he said. “These are resources for the entire country.”