Today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced an agreement with the Canadian metal smelting company Teck Cominco concerning contamination of the Upper Columbia River and Lake Roosevelt with toxic heavy metals. Pursuant to that agreement Teck Cominco has agreed to fund an assessment for Superfund cleanup purposes.
"The public cost of cleaning of Lake Roosvelt will be constant vigilance," said John Osborn, a Spokane physician and Sierra Club leader. "Teck Cominco's environmental record is abysmal, including such problems as the Red Dog Mine in Alaska. Handing over control of the environmental analysis to this corporate polluter is fraught with peril, even with EPA oversight."
"If the company performs a thorough assessment, the agreement could be a good thing," said Martin Wagner of Earthjustice. "While the agreement demonstrates that polluters should not be able to hide behind national borders, it says nothing about who will be responsible for cleaning up the contamination, which is really the important question. As the party responsible for the pollution, Teck Cominco must be responsible for the cleanup."
Previously EPA issued an administrative order directing Teck Cominco to study the contamination, but the agency refused to enforce its order. Members of the Colville Tribe and the State of Washington sued to enforce the order. Earthjustice and the Center for Justice, on behalf of Sierra Club and Sierra Club of Canada, filed an amicus brief supporting the Colville Tribes and the state in arguing that Tech Cominco is subject to Superfund liability.
"This puts us right back to where we were before EPA issued the UAO," said Rick Eichstaedt, attorney with the Center for Justice in Spokane. "TCM had agreed to pay for an assessment with the understanding that it was not subject to Superfund. While the previous proposal from Teck has a cap, the underlying legal issue of liability under US law ends up the same." Read the agreement TCM made with EPA. (pdf)
"Contrary to EPA's claim, the Bush administration did not take the initiative in this case," noted Wagner. "The administration refused to enforce EPA's order when Teck Cominco ignored it -- the government appears to have done nothing until the tribes came forward and pressed the issue."