U.S. District Court Judge Lonny Suko has handed Teck Cominco Metals Ltd. a potential $1 billion lump of name-that-mineral for decades of misbehavior.
Teck had already taken responsibility for the tons of waste that spewed out of its Trail, B.C., smelter for a century. But as a Canadian company, Teck maintained it was beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. courts that might find it liable for the damage deliberately caused by executives who knew their slag was being deposited on the bottom and along the beaches of the Columbia River, south of the border.
Suko found otherwise, setting the stage for Phase II of the suit, which was filed eight years ago by the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the State of Washington. That part of the litigation will determine what damage Teck might have done, and how much will be needed for remediation.
More than environmental degradation is in question. Tribal members and other residents along the upper Columbia have suffered from unusually high rates of colitis and related bowel diseases. Claims stemming from health issues, if found valid, could be expensive indeed.
That is, unless Teck appeals, a likelihood given the size of the potential damages.
But, perhaps most significantly, Suko’s ruling could open the way to more claims that companies on one side of the border might be held accountable for damage done to the environment by waterborne or airborne waste; acidic rain created by Midwest coal-plant emissions that later falls in eastern Canada, for example.
Decades ago, in fact, Washington farmers received $350,000 from the Canadian government to compensate them for harm done their land by the Trail smelter’s sulfur emissions.
Seldom, however, is single-source cause of trans-border so obvious.
In cooperation with the state Department of Ecology and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Teck has been studying the effects of slag on the Columbia’s waters and aquatic life. It also, in 2010, spent $1 million cleaning up the aptly named Black Sand Beach. There are many other polluted beaches and swimming holes along Lake Roosevelt that may need remediation. Teck says tests have found little contamination in the water itself.
But the state and tribes are not satisfied, and have formed a Natural Resources Trustee council to develop a separate Injury Assessment Plan.
Teck spokesmen say the company hopes to continue working cooperatively with all parties trying to unwind harm done before many knew, or cared, about the consequences of mining and ore processing. The region has so many ugly examples – from Butte to Libby in Montana, to the Silver Valley in Idaho, and the former Midnight Mine in Stevens County.
Owners have spent tens of millions to restore plants, fish and wildlife destroyed or driven out by predecessors in pursuit of wealth. Teck has stopped denying the obvious – that Trail used the Columbia as a southbound conveyor belt for its waste – but accepting the bill for cleanup may be another matter.
Teck has worked hard to establish a reputation as a good corporate citizen. Undoing the damage done the Columbia and those who live along its banks may be the acid test.