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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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State, tribes out of cleanup talks

The Bush administration is blocking Washington state and local tribes from participating in ongoing diplomatic talks over cleaning up a Canadian company’s extensive Columbia River pollution.

In a Feb. 2 letter obtained by The Spokesman-Review, the U.S. Department of State said it would be “inappropriate” to include tribal representatives, state officials or “any other actual or potential litigants” in diplomatic talks with Canada over the transboundary pollution battle.

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire is disappointed that the State Department has barred the tribes from the talks and will be asking the federal agency to reconsider, said spokesman Jerry Gilliland. But Gregoire is pleased the U.S. diplomats are promising ongoing consultations with Washington state, he added.

The State Department decision is a “slap in the face” to the 9,000-member Colville Confederated Tribes, said tribal leader Joe Pakootas. Last July, he filed a Superfund citizen’s suit against Teck Cominco Ltd. in an effort to enforce a cleanup for Lake Roosevelt – the first such lawsuit against a foreign company in the history of Superfund.

“It’s a pretty sad situation. The tribe has the most at stake, and we’ve pushed this fight forward,” Pakootas said.

Washington state has joined the Colvilles’ lawsuit, saying a Superfund cleanup under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency jurisdiction is the best way to resolve the international issue. But Teck Cominco has balked, saying it’s not subject to U.S. Superfund law. Its motion to dismiss the Colvilles’ suit was rejected by U.S. District Judge Alan McDonald on Nov. 8, and the legal standoff will be heard this year by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Teck Cominco’s huge lead and zinc smelter at Trail, B.C., has dumped millions of tons of metals-tainted slag and tons of toxic mercury into the Columbia for decades, according to environmental monitoring documents reviewed by the newspaper. Most of the dumping stopped in the mid-1990s, but the pollution has spread downstream into Washington.

In its new letter, the State Department said it will meet with Washington state officials before the next scheduled round of diplomatic talks with Canada on Feb. 24 in Washington, D.C. The letter is signed by Terry A. Breese, director of the Office of Canadian Affairs.

Canada has already submitted a confidential proposal to resolve the international dispute.

Breese and two other State Department officials met with Washington Department of Ecology staff in Spokane last November, toured Lake Roosevelt and also met with the Colvilles and the Spokane Indian Tribe.

The Spokanes are also disappointed with the State Department stance, said their attorney, Shannon Work of Coeur d’Alene. They are not a party to the Colvilles’ lawsuit, but they have standing in the case because they are affected by pollution in the Upper Columbia, he said.

“When the Spokane tribe met with the State Department, it was made clear that as a sovereign government, the tribe is entitled to as direct participation as possible in discussions with Canada,” Work added.

In recent months, the State Department has sought to temper the EPA’s unilateral cleanup order to Teck Cominco, issued last year from the agency’s Seattle regional office.

Paul Celucci, the U.S. ambassador to Canada and a former Republican governor of Massachusetts, has told EPA that he opposes a Superfund cleanup for Lake Roosevelt. The reason: hostility from U.S. mining and electric utilities who fear Canada and Mexico might retaliate against them for cross-border air and water pollution.

Meanwhile, Teck Cominco is rolling in cash, according to its most recent quarterly reports.

Its net earnings were $285 million or $1.42 per share in the fourth quarter of 2004, compared with $104 million or $0.56 a share in the fourth quarter of 2003. Its unaudited net earnings for the year were $617 million, in large part due to “significantly higher commodity prices and increased production and sales of copper, zinc, coal and molybdenum,” the company said in a news release this week.

Teck Cominco has offered to spend up to $13 million on a Columbia River cleanup study, but rejects being subject to EPA cleanup standards. Meanwhile, the EPA is using its own funds to study the extent of the pollution. The Superfund law allows the EPA to do the work itself and then charge triple the cost to recalcitrant companies.

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