A CENTURY OF EVIDENCE
This timeline of the Teck Trail B.C. Smelter’s permitted pollution and accidental spills was created using data from their records and documentation of events, as well as data from The Canadian B.C. Environment Ministry.
**See recent addition of a 2004 article published in the Seattle Times regarding the admitted amount of Mercury Teck released through the years**
1906 – Production begins at the Trail Smelter (Teck) in Trail, B.C. Canada
1933 – Farmers from Northport and Marcus sue Teck Cominco for damages the smelters air pollution caused to their stock and crops.
1940 – Teck Cominco is admittedly dumping up to 1000 tons of heavy metal toxins (slag) into the river daily.
** The explanation given to us regarding the gap of missing information from 1940 to 1980 was an inability to locate the 40 years of documentation, possibly due to a warehouse fire.
1980 – Records show the average amount of slag Teck dumps from mid 1980’s through 1996 is 450 tons a day.
- One of the first recorded spills by Teck Cominco is of 6,330 pounds of mercury directly into the Columbia. Teck does not report the massive spill to Canadian Authorities for 5 weeks. Once the Canadian Ministry notifies the United States authorities no action is taken, neither to warn residents in communities or tribes along the river, or an environmental investigation. The Canadian Ministry files a lawsuit against Teck. The smelter eventually pleads guilty and pays a $5000 fine to Canada’s B.C. Environment Ministry.
1981 – A memo, from Canada’s B.C. Environment Ministry, estimates Teck has been dumping up to 20 pounds of mercury a day into the river for an unknown amount of years.
1989 – Teck is fined twice, by The Canadian B.C. Environment Ministry, for exceeding waste management permit limits, under Canada’s Waste Management Act.
1990 – Teck reports a spill of 300-400 gallons of concentrated sulfuric acid. The accident is not reported until 14 hours after time of spill because, according to the B.C. Environment Incident Report, the plant’s alarm did not sound.
1991 – Teck violates their waste management permit with a spill of zinc and cadmium. They plead guilty and agree to pay $40,000 towards a Canadian river study. The United States never requests the same be done for the United States areas impacted by all the spills.
1992 – Teck’s records indicate, on average, dumping 200 tons of sulfuric acid a day into the river. Their Canadian discharge permits allow this, the United States has access to these documents and the right to issue a stop, the United States never requests to see any documents.
- Teck reports a spill of 855 pounds of sulfur dioxide and 187 pounds of mercury
1993 – Teck reports an accidental spill of a large amount of sediment containing arsenic and cadmium
- A memo from Canadian regulators to Teck says a better river monitoring system needs to be installed.
- Richard Dalosse, the Regional Environment Manager, also sends an internal memo to his supervisors. In it he says; “If we fail to ensure accurate monitoring of this discharge, it is possible that we could be held civilly or criminally liable.”
1994 – The Canadian river study, conducted under the “Columbia River Integrated Environmental Monitoring Program”, is published. It states that a significant amount of heavy metal toxins were found in river sediments south of Trail (Waneta & Northport, Washington). However, since this is a Canadian study it stops at the U.S. border.
1995 – An accidental spill of 1000 gallons of sulfuric acid is reported by the smelter. Per their records the accident was attributed to “lack of attention” on part of a worker.
- An internal BC Ministry memo states that the ongoing mercury spills by the smelter “are of serious concern due to the persistence & bio accumulative nature (of mercury)”
1996 – Teck’s records show an average daily discharge of: 40 pounds of lead, 135 pounds of cadmium, 9 pounds of mercury and more than 16,000 pounds of zinc.
- Teck halts the practice of dumping slag into the river. Teck begins storing the slag, later selling it to the concrete industry.
1997 – The Colville Confederate Tribe completes a study regarding the impact of Teck’s century of discharging heavy metal toxins may have had on their environment and human health.
- The reports concludes that between 1994-1997 Teck’s discharges of arsenic, cadmium and lead equal more than the discharges of ALL the zinc and lead smelters combined through-out the United States.
- Just to make sure the readers understand the above comment it warrants repeating – one Smelter’s (Teck’s) discharge for three years was more than the discharge released over those same three years by all of the United Smelters combined
1998 – Teck reports an accidental spill of 3.4 tons of slag into the river
2001 – Teck reports a spill of 1,923 pounds of mercury.
Teck’s records show 86 accidental spills between 1987 and 2001
Karen Dorn Steel, a reporter with the Spokesman Review, states in her 2003 article “EPA goes after Canada smelter’s; “The estimated 9.8 million tons (of slag) that Cominco has dumped into the river is equivalent to a dump truck emptying 19 tons every hour for 60 years.”
2004– Records, released by the Canadian B.C. Ministry, estimate that Teck has been dumping approximately 1.6 tons – 3.6 tons of mercury annually into the river since 1940.
2008 – Teck records a spill of 2,068 pounds of lead and 420 quarts of acid
2010 – Teck spills approx. 15kg of mercury into the river when there is a leak while employees are working on pipes at the facility.
These discharges were permitted not only by the The Canadian B.C. Environment Ministry, but by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as well.
The accidental spills the smelter had, and continues to have, are eventually reported to the US Agencies by the Canadian B.C. Environment Ministry. However in every reported case neither the Canadian Ministry nor the United States Health Department or Environmental Protection Agency informed any of the communities located just a few miles down river. Under their own guidelines this is a criminal act of negligence.
Below is an article published in the Seattle Times on June 21, 2004. It gives even more disturbing information regarding the history of Teck’s discharge of Mercury into the Columbia River.
Monday, June 21, 2004 – Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
SPOKANE — Newly obtained documents reveal the Teck Cominco smelter in British Columbia dumped tons of highly toxic mercury into the Columbia River for decades.
The smelter’s record of dumping contaminated slag, a smelting byproduct, has been known for years.
But documents The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review obtained from British Columbia’s Ministry of the Environment shed new light on the extent of mercury releases from the lead-zinc smelter in Trail, B.C., about six miles north of the Washington border.
Calculations based on two Canadian estimates indicate that 1.6 tons to 3.6 tons of mercury had been discharged into the river each year since the 1940s, the newspaper reported.
Mercury is a highly toxic metal that, in sufficient doses, can cause neurological damage in developing fetuses.
An October 1981 memo from B.C.’s environment ministry said Cominco had deposited about 20 pounds of mercury a day into the Columbia over many years.
Washington state officials said they were surprised by the numbers.
“We weren’t aware of the quantities you are talking about,” Flora Goldstein, director of the Washington Department of Ecology’s toxics program in Spokane, told The Spokesman-Review. “The province and the company have not been forthcoming about this.”
Mark Edwards, Teck Cominco’s manager for environment, safety and health, said he doubts the plant’s releases were that high in the early 1980s.
He said the company estimates the smelter released 9 pounds of mercury into the Columbia each day and has since reduced releases to 0.07 pounds a day.
Teck Cominco officials are resisting a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) order to study the contamination, insisting that U.S. cleanup laws don’t apply to them. They’ve offered an alternative study that would sidestep Superfund cleanup regulations. U.S. and Canadian diplomats are discussing the matter behind closed doors.
The documents obtained by the newspaper were written in response to a 6,300-pound mercury spill into the Columbia in March 1980. Cominco didn’t report the spill to authorities for five weeks.
Shortly after the spill, mercury levels in Lake Roosevelt — a 130-mile impoundment of the Columbia behind the Grand Coulee Dam — exceeded drinking-water standards.
In May 1980, the B.C. government tested fish south of the smelter and found that rainbow-trout tissue showed mercury levels twice Canada’s safety threshold of 0.5 parts per million.
Two months later, more tests showed that sport fish had mercury levels below that level but that bottom-feeding squawfish had mercury levels of 0.79 ppm.
After a protracted legal battle, Cominco was fined $5,000. The province could have fined the company up to $1 million, the newspaper reported.
“Cominco fought back hard,” said Don Skogstad, a Nelson, B.C., lawyer now in private practice who prosecuted the case for the province.
R.H. Ferguson, director of pollution control for the B.C. Ministry’s waste-management branch, wrote a summary of the 1980 spill and said it did not appear that limiting pollution was a high priority for the company.
“Since the turn of the century, the Columbia River has been used by the company as a repository for a vast array of its highly contaminated wastes, sludges and accidental spills. The attitude of its employees that such discharges are legitimate and will not have adverse long-term environmental impacts on the Columbia River appears widespread,” Ferguson wrote.
Several years later, B.C. officials decided against warning the public about elevated mercury levels in fish downstream from the smelter, saying people probably were safe if they ate only one meal of fish a week.
In 1997, Cominco built a new smelter at Trail that has helped reduce discharges by 99 percent. But monitoring reports show the company at times continues to exceed its Canadian permit limits for mercury and other heavy metals.
On 86 days between September 1987 and May 2001, Cominco reported spills, including 1,923 pounds of mercury. Cominco was charged twice over the spills in 1989 under Canada’s Waste Management Act. It pleaded guilty and was fined $30,000 by the Rossland Provincial Court, according to the newspaper.
In 1989, the Washington Department of Social and Health Services said more studies of Lake Roosevelt were needed because fish exceeding mercury levels had been found on the Canadian side of the border.
In the early 1990s, a Washington resident concerned about mercury in Lake Roosevelt contacted the EPA’s regional office in Seattle. An EPA emergency-response coordinator worked up a plan to investigate mercury in Lake Roosevelt sediments, but it wasn’t pursued.
“It was a management call. At the time, it appeared that money was better spent on more immediate emergencies,” said Thor Cutler, the EPA coordinator who drafted the plan.
In 1999, the Colville Confederated Tribes petitioned the EPA to determine whether Lake Roosevelt should be declared a Superfund site.
After a preliminary survey, the EPA found widespread industrial pollution in sediments throughout the upper Columbia, including elevated lead levels near Northport, high mercury levels near Kettle Falls and high zinc levels near the border with Canada.