Opinion: Upper Columbia River: Governments supporting a superfund

Nancy Churchill continues her series on the proposed EPA Superfund on the upper Columbia River.

Nancy Churchill continues her series on the proposed EPA Superfund on the upper Columbia River

This is part five of a series of articles about the proposed EPA Superfund site on the upper Columbia River. The previous articles are available at thinkspot.com and Dangerous Rhetoric. In this article, we look at the governmental entities which support the proposal to create an upper Columbia River superfund.

The Federal Government: The EPA

Nancy Churchill
Nancy Churchill

The proposal to list an EPA Superfund site starts with the U.S. Government through the Environmental Protection Agency. In the case of the upper Columbia River, the EPA negotiated a settlement with one of the primary polluters, Teck American. Teck American agreed to conduct the scientific studies (the RI/FS) necessary to determine whether a Superfund was warranted, and to do the work under the supervision of the EPA. Teck American paid for the studies, and also completed remediation in the Steven’s County uplands. The company also made significant improvements in the smelter located near Trail, BC.

The studies and remediation have been underway since 2006, and there were two additional studies outstanding before the determination for a Superfund site would normally be made. However, the Biden Administration has decided to recommend the designation before the studies are complete, claiming that the process is taking too long and that the Human Health Risk Assessment is enough proof to jump straight to Superfund designation.

The State of Washington: Governor Inslee

For Governor Inslee, this matter is about gaining access to the Superfund money from the federal government. In a previous article in this series, we’ve discovered that the Human Health Risk Assessment showed the water to be clean, the fish to be safe to eat, most beaches safe to play on, and many properties remediated. No scientific data was presented regarding actual health impacts in actual residents, just “estimated” harms. However, Inslee claims that there are “unacceptable risks to human health and the environment”. In his letter to the EPA, Inslee also claims “… only very limited progress on site investigation and cleanup has occurred to date.” That claim is simply not accurate according to the scientific documents submitted by the EPA.

Inslee is very aware that when Teck has completed the studies, their responsibilities under the 2006 agreement are complete. In fact, in 2016, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals limited Teck’s liability for upland area cleanup. Inslee points out that “Without Superfund monies, only limited funding options will be available to address… cleanup requirements identified in the forthcoming cleanup plan.” But without the RI/FS, there’s no way to know how much more cleanup will need to be done, or where, or how.

The Tribes: The Colville and the Spokane

Both the Colville Tribes and the Spokane Tribe support the superfund designation. Their reservations border Lake Roosevelt. The Spokane Reservation is located at the Columbia River’s confluence with the Spokane River, and the Colville Reservation has a long border on the lake from Grand Coulee Dam northward to just south of the traditional fishing grounds at Kettle Falls. Both tribes say the proposed site includes lands that are part of their traditional homeland.

According to several sources, the tribes believe an environmental injustice was done, and that the river and uplands should be completely remediated and returned as much as possible to a more pristine state.

In a letter to the EPA, the Spokane Tribe points out that most of the research has been done in the uplands, rather than in the areas closer to the Spokane Reservation. “We do not believe currently planned RI/FS activities will adequately characterize risks in downriver reservoir areas…” The Spokane letter continues, “Once listed, the EPA will have access to the Superfund to timely proceed with remedial actions…”

The Colville Tribes press release states, “…a listing unlocks badly needed funding for environmental restoration.”

Points to consider

The goal of this series is to prepare you to make an educated and influential comment on this proposal for a Superfund site. Here’s some of the points I’m currently considering.

Yes, there was significant pollution released into the river. However, because of the remote location and massive size of the watershed, it does not appear the pollution has had a significant impact on the overall health of the people that live in the region or those who visit the lake for fishing and recreation. The Human Health Risk Assessment, the only scientific study currently completed, does not make a convincing case for an expedited and rushed listing. Scientific studies which will define the actual extent and impact of the pollution on the ecosystem have not yet been completed. The feasibility studies which will recommend proposed cleanup sites and methods also have not yet been completed. Until these studies are complete, why this sudden rush to list the site? The studies are due in the near future. Shouldn’t we “follow the science”?

Furthermore, by rushing to list the site, it appears the EPA is violating the terms of the 2006 Agreement, which specified that these studies would be completed prior to the EPA recommending a listing. Is it possible this would actually slow down the future cleanup process if the EPA is sued for violating the agreement?

In the next article in this series, we’ll review the positions of local elected leaders — those closest to and most responsible for the well being, safety and prosperity of the people who elected them. The local elected officials universally oppose the proposed listing at this time. Why? Stay tuned.

Nancy Churchill is a writer and educator in rural eastern Washington state, and the state committeewoman for the Ferry County Republican Party. She may be reached at DangerousRhetoric@pm.me. The opinions expressed in Dangerous Rhetoric are her own. Dangerous Rhetoric is available on thinkspot, Rumble and Substack.

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