The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has thwarted yet another attempt by Canada-based Teck Metals Ltd. to avoid paying damages to the Colville Federated Tribes and the State of Washington for nearly a century of toxic waste dumping into the Columbia River.
The January 26 ruling denied Teck’s appeal of an August 2016 judgment that awarded Colville and Washington $8.3 million in damages. The company had asked that a final decision be delayed until all claims had been litigated regarding damages to natural resources, which would have taken years. Legal costs had been mounting even before the tribes filed suit in 2004, and this current suit only covers legal costs incurred by the tribes since that time. The initial damages were awarded last August.
“It’s been a frustrating process for the tribe,” said Tribal Chairman Michael Marchand. “Our goal has been to clean up the river. There have been some small examples where they’ve done testing, but actual cleanup, it’s never happened. We’ve been going for years with a lot of attorney fees, over $8 million, but actual cleanup is close to zero.”
“Teck has been delaying this litigation for years,” the Colville Business Council said in a statement. “The Tribes’ determined attempt to clean up the river is one step closer to success. We’ll continue to fight for a clean river.”
Teck Metals Ltd., about 10 miles north of the U.S.–Canada border, has dumped tremendous amounts of waste into the Columbia River since 1896. These amounts are measured in hundreds of thousands of tons of various hazardous substances. The river drains into Lake Roosevelt on the Colville Reservation and then flows on to the Pacific. The U.S. Environmental Protective Agency identified this lake as a Superfund site in 2003.
Lake Roosevelt is a beautiful lake bordering the east and south sides of the reservation, with about 200 miles of shoreline. Access to the public is pretty limited, as most of the shoreline can’t be developed, but that makes it possible to beach a boat nearly anywhere. It has the potential for tourism, but the pollution problem and concern about eating fish has restricted that possibility, Marchand noted. And the issue of ownership is as cloudy as the water.
“The land that Teck sits on may be our land,” Marchand said. “We’ve never sold our lands. There’s no treaty. It looks like we have a good case to own the land, and may go to court. It looks like the law is on our side.”
Marchand first noticed the pollution problem in 1978, when he was an environmental engineer doing baseline water sampling for a mining project.
“We noticed the water was already polluted with heavy metals contamination, and we hadn’t mined anything yet,” he said.
How cleanup will proceed is anybody’s guess, Marchand said, given a new federal administration.
“The EPA, they don’t know either,” Marchand said. “They basically said they’re waiting for the new President to decide what he wants to do, and they’re just keeping a low profile. That’s frustrating.”
Meanwhile, the pollution remains.
“There are miles and miles of black sand in the river,” Marchand said. “That poison gets in the water and in the fish. They tell us it’s sort of safe, but I don’t know if they have any credibility with me.”