Day after day, for 65 years, the Cominco Ltd. lead and zinc smelter dumped up to 400 tons of slag into the Columbia River.
The black sand washed up on Lake Roosevelt beaches. It smothered parts of the lakebed, killing tiny but important insects. It leached metals into the water.
This summer, the slag stopped spewing into the Northwest’s mightiest river.
“I think this is a milestone, I really do,” says Scott Hall, coordinator of the Lake Roosevelt Water Quality Council.
“This was the last major industrial water quality problem coming out of Canada.”
Faced with a provincial government that finally started to enforce its anti-pollution laws - and under pressure from the United States - Cominco has dramatically decreased contamination of the Columbia.
Most significant is the big drop in dissolved metals coming from the smelter sewers.
Lead. Mercury. Copper. Cadmium. Zinc. They threaten the health of people and wildlife. They were on everyone’s minds back in 1990, when a group of Washington residents met with Cominco officials.
The visitors were diplomatic, except for Ed Broch.
The Washington State University researcher plopped a bag full of slag onto the Cominco conference table.
“What about this?” he demanded.
Slag is a byproduct of smelting, in which metals are extracted from ore.
Company managers were frustrated by Broch’s suggestion that they stop pouring it into the river. They considered slag harmless. They had bigger problems: namely, the dissolved metals. If they didn’t keep those out of the river, the region’s biggest employer might be shut down.
As Broch recalls it, even officials in the United States criticized him for making an issue of Lake Roosevelt slag.
That reservoir, an increasingly popular boating and fishing playground, lies behind Grand Coulee Dam in Washington. Concerns about pollution led to the creation of the Lake Roosevelt Water Quality Council, which is in the final stages of writing a management plan to protect it.
“The Cominco stuff triggered this whole effort, which dates back to 1980 when fish in Lake Roosevelt were found to have the highest cadmium content of fish found anywhere in the nation,” says Hall.
Besides metals, researchers found high concentrations of dioxins in fish. Those dangerous compounds came from the Celgar Pulp Co. mill in Castlegar.
Health warnings were posted north and south of the border: Don’t eat too many fish from the Columbia.
Two years ago, Celgar opened a new plant and has stopped dumping dioxins into the river.
Cominco thought its new smelter would solve pollution problems, too.
The latest German technology failed Cominco, however. The new smelter didn’t work. Swallowing a $200 million loss, the company is now installing what’s known hereabouts as the “new, new smelter.”
It’s scheduled to be running by late next year, a century after the first Trail smelter opened.
But the end of 1995 is Cominco’s deadline for reducing pollution. That’s when a new discharge permit goes into effect.
So the company has tackled one source of pollution at a time. One huge step was eliminating mercury discharges from what one environmental official calls “the notorious” sewer No. 7.
On July 1, the slag stopped going into the river.
“It’s rather belated good news,” says Broch, the in-their-face researcher.
After his 1990 discussion with Cominco, Canadian researchers confirmed that trace metals in the slag can leach into water and, under laboratory conditions, kill fish.
Broch contends that slag does a double whammy on Lake Roosevelt. It not only releases metals, it smothers the lake bottom.
“This stuff is extremely fine. It fills in spaces between gravel. That’s where the aquatic life lives. … They are the basis of the food chain.”
Federal scientists recently reported that fewer tiny creatures survive in the lake where slag has settled. Species that can’t tolerate metals are absent in some places.
Rick Crozier and other provincial officials long thought slag was relatively harmless.
“The assumption was, yeah, we had to clean it up, but it was down on the priority list a ways. We wanted to deal with the dissolved metals first, which we knew were a problem,” says Crozier, a manager with BC Environment. “It probably should have been higher on the priority list.”
Crozier recalls visiting Cominco years ago and asking: Can’t you do something useful with the slag?
Faced with an ultimatum - clean up or shut down - the company has.
A Seattle cement plant now buys 25 percent of the slag that used to spit into the river. Other coastal factories are experimenting with it as part of their cement recipes.
Cominco is researching more uses for slag, too, such as a replacement for sand in concrete.
Slag is no longer a waste material to Cominco. It’s a product with a name: ferrous granules. “It’s not quite as catchy as ‘Buick,”’ jokes public relations officer Richard Fish.
Every day, Cominco produces enough slag to fill four boxcars. Costly transportation from its remote plant is Cominco’s biggest roadblock to selling the sand. The company has a landfill site picked out in case it can’t find enough buyers.
“We’re deferring that as long as we can,” says company environmental manager Graham Kenyon. “We don’t want to spend one or two million dollars to start something we may not have to use.”
Slag comes out of the smelter in a chute, like a flow of lava. It shatters and hardens into granules when mixed with a stream of cold water.
Until the “new, new” smelter is working, the granules will continue to pour into a pond right at the river’s edge. From there, the slag is dredged into trucks. The road beneath those vehicles, like so much of Trail, is built on slag.
A relatively small amount of slag, about 2 tons, washes into the Columbia from the shoreline pond. Cominco is looking for a way to end the overflow.
Dealing with pollution on the 485-acre Cominco complex is a never-ending job. Much of it falls to Kenyon, a soft-spoken engineer.
A sign tacked to his office bookshelves reads: “Insanity is continuing to do the things you’ve always done and expecting different results.”
To many people who live around Lake Roosevelt, polluting the Columbia River was a pretty insane thing. They’re glad it’s winding down, but they know the black sand isn’t going away. Grand Coulee Dam keeps it from washing downstream.
Slag has poured into the river since 1930. There are black beaches above Northport and telltale black bands in the sand elsewhere along the shore.
“When the wind blows, fine particles are carried up into the land, which people don’t even think about,” says Frank Ossiander of the activist group Citizens for a Clean Columbia.
No one knows how long it will be before the slag on the lake bottom is buried by fresh sediment, allowing life to return to normal at the bottom of the lake and preventing metals from seeping into the water.
“Will the lake recover in five, 10, 100 years?” asks Mark Munn, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “I think it will be slow. It doesn’t take a scientist to figure that out.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 photos (1 color) Graphic: Pollution from Canada declines