Zinc Firm to Pay Millions In International Pollution Agreement

The federal government and the world's largest zinc producer have reached an international agreement to investigate contamination in the Upper Columbia River in northeast Washington state, EPA officials announced on June 2.

Under the agreement, Teck Cominco will fund and perform an EPA-monitored assessment -- estimated at $20 million -- of decades of past pollution in the river running downstream from Canada into U.S. waters. The studies will produce a science-based report on the ecological and human health conditions of the Columbia River from the Grand Coulee dam to the Canadian border, a length of about 150 miles.

"Teck Cominco has a long standing commitment to protect the environment as a responsible corporate citizen," said Doug Horswill, senior vice president, environment and corporate affairs for Teck Cominco. "From day one Teck Cominco has voluntarily sought a cooperative arrangement with U.S. authorities to address the public's concerns surrounding Lake Roosevelt. This agreement is a great step forward in allowing us to fulfill our commitment."

The agreement follows two years of negotiations between EPA and Teck Cominco and a suit by the Colville Confederated Tribes of Eastern Washington and the state of Washington.

Under the federal Superfund law (the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act), EPA ordered Teck Cominco in 2003 to clean up the toxic metals that for decades were released into the lake from the company's smelter in Trail, B.C. Individual members of the Colville Confederated Tribes, whose reservation borders the lake, sued the company in federal court for not complying with that order. The state joined the suit in August 2004.

Teck Cominco argued that the Superfund law was never intended to apply to foreign companies.

EPA called its agreement with Teck Cominco for an assessment the initial step in the clean-up process.

"With this historic agreement, we have moved from opposite sides of the table to sit down together as environmental problem solvers," said Michael Bogert, EPA's Region 9 administrator.

The issue of who will pay for the eventual cleanup has yet to be resolved.

According to EPA officials, the agreement is fully enforceable and is consistent with U.S. Superfund models and policy. Under the agreement, the company will complete a Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study consistent with U.S. Superfund law. In addition, EPA retains full oversight authority for the duration of the study.

The company agrees to fully fund the multi-year study to its completion and to pay federal oversight costs up front. In addition the agreement provides for state and tribal involvement throughout the study and $1.1 million in annual funding for their participation, EPA officials said.

Washington state officials said that they are concerned that the agreement may not lead to a cleanup that adequately protects human health and the environment. In addition, they said the agreement limits state and tribal ability to participate fully in the cleanup process.

"This agreement is a private contract between the federal government and an international mining company," said Jay Manning, Director of the Washington Department of Ecology. "That departs from normal settlement and cleanup procedures under both federal and state cleanup laws. Usually, these agreements take the form of a consent order or a consent decree, which is clearly enforceable and reliably requires a polluter to clean up contamination to appropriate standards. We will to hold Cominco to its word about conducting a thorough and timely investigation."

The agreement can be accessed at http://www.epa.gov/newsroom/pdf/teckcominco.pdf.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

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