New Twist in Pollution Case
Canadian Smelter’s Legal Maneuver Frustrates Residents Along Northwest Border
NORTHPORT, Wash.—Ranching families and American Indian tribes along the Columbia River here have long accused a refinery across the river in Canada of poisoning their land.
In a surprise move, the plant’s owner, Canadian refining giant Teck Resources Ltd., said late Monday that its Teck Metals unit would no longer contest that it is responsible for discharging contaminants into the U.S. in a federal trial that had been set to begin next week. Instead, Teck agreed to proceed to phase two of the trial in October, which will culminate in a judge’s eventual ruling on any liability for pollution damages and cleanup costs. Teck continues to say it isn’t responsible for extensive pollution of the river.
Turmoil in Northport
The company’s legal maneuver represents a mixed blessing for residents of this tiny border community on the U.S. side.
Washington state and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation had filed suit in federal court against Teck, whose sprawling Trail, British Columbia, smelter began operating on the Columbia River in 1896. The trial was set to begin Sept. 17 as the initial step in establishing any clean-up costs, and residents had hoped the trial would soon clarify the extent of any damages.
While the company may eventually pay damages, any dollar amount won’t be set until at least 2015, meaning it will be three years or more before residents here know the extent of any damages.
Some people here had been looking forward to seeing Teck’s alleged discharging of waste from its Canada plant examined in court, and hoped evidence in the trial would bolster their own efforts to hold the company accountable for illnesses they say have plagued families here for decades.
“I hope it can at least get it stopped for future generations,” said Barbara Anderson, an artist who has lived here since 1975. Mrs. Anderson, 59 years old, believes her teenage daughter’s ulcerative colitis was caused directly by smelter heavy metals. They are not currently suing the company.
In the past century, some residents complained about damage to crops from Teck’s operations, which occasionally led to small settlements. In 1941, the Trail smelter was cited in an International Joint Commission arbitration ruling that no country can permit air pollution that harms the citizens or property in another country, said Rachael Paschal Osborn, staff attorney for the Center for Environmental Law & Policy in Spokane, Wash.
In this town of barely 350 residents, locals have long complained of higher-than-normal rates of certain maladies. Ranching families, especially on Mitchell Road, which runs along a bend in the Columbia River, report diagnoses of cancers and multiple sclerosis that they believe came from swimming in the Columbia, and from using river water for fields and cattle.
A recent Harvard Medical School study determined that Northport has 10 to 15 times the normal rates of certain inflammatory bowel maladies such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. “It seems like a provocative cluster,” said Joshua Korzenik, an author of the study, who now is seeking funding for a full epidemiological survey of the town’s residents to attempt to confirm if there is a link to any pollution.
Washington state health officials say the connection isn’t conclusive.
Teck officials say the disease clusters could be related to family genetics and factors other than pollution from its plant.
Teck’s most recent court case began in 2004, when the Confederated Tribes of Colville brought suit in U.S. court in Yakima, Wash. Their goal: to force Teck to comply with Superfund rules.
At first, the Canadian company argued that the U.S. Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, known as the Superfund law, lacked jurisdiction over a foreign company.
But with the trial set to begin next week, the Canadian company switched gears. In its statement Monday, Teck said it would now stipulate that “some portion” of the slag discharged from Trail into the Columbia River between 1896 and 1995, along with “some portion of the effluent” discharged, “are present in the Upper Columbia River,” and that “some hazardous substances” had been released into the U.S.
The 1.4 million-acre Colville reservation hugs one bank of the Columbia River north of the Grand Coulee Dam. For years, tribal members complained pollutants from Teck’s Canadian operation remained in sediment under Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir of Columbia River water that lies behind the dam.
John Sirois, chairman of the Confederated Colville tribes, points to a spot of black sand beach known to locals as “Dead Man’s eddy” where the tribe warns against fishing or swimming. Mr. Sirois said his reservation had spent over $2 million in legal fees, just to get to Teck to court. “Certainly, this is a win,” he said. “But we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of damages and what cleanup costs could be.”
Monday’s news angered some residents. “Teck was afraid of the outcome of the Yakima trial. They feared if they were held liable it would have opened them up to an onslaught of civil lawsuits,” said Jamie Paparich, who grew up on Mitchell Road and now leads a coalition of former and current Northport citizens fighting for a cleanup of the river.
Click below to view the Wall Street Journal’s slideshow of Northport residents: