Canadian smelter refines its legal case with admission
A Canadian polluter admits the obvious in court. Cleanup and writing big checks for fouling the Columbia River are still buried in legal slag.
Seattle Times staff columnist
After years of legal quibbling, artful stalling, and averted eyes, Canadian smelter Teck Metals Ltd. acknowledged a century of using the Upper Columbia River and Lake Roosevelt as an industrial sewer.
Teck Cominco, Teck Resources or Teck Metals, regardless of the corporate alias, the company admitted this week it had discharged 10 million tons of slag from its smelting process and hundreds of thousands of tons of heavy metals into the river at Trail, B.C., 10 miles north of the border.
The company admits that slag and effluent discharged between 1896 and 1995 made it to the Columbia from its smelter operations, and some hazardous substances were released into the environment within the United States.
The qualified confession came in the form of a legal stipulation filed Monday, a week before trial was to begin in U.S. District Court in Yakima.
Moving a step ahead, the next phase of the trial, now set to start Oct. 10, will look at liability for damages under U.S. law, what must be done to deal with the pollution and how much the company might have to pay.
Over the years, the state Department of Ecology has had estimates that topped $1 billion to make things right from the border down 150 miles to Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam.
The language in the 15-page legal document is shocking to anyone not used to the boiler plate of calculated admissions:
"Between 1930 and 1995, Teck discharged at least 9.97 million tons of slag into the Columbia River via outfalls at its Trail Smelter. This discharge was intentional."
Or Teck's other fetid contribution to the Columbia River. "The discharged effluent contained lead, zinc, cadmium, arsenic, copper, mercury, thallium and other metals, as well as a variety of other chemical compounds ... This discharge was intentional."
The company will concede that this nasty stuff has leached into the environment, but wants to argue whether it has really, really done any harm. O benign mercury.
How accountability translates into pollution cleanup is a work in progress. The company, in a news release announcing an agreement "as to certain facts in Upper Columbia River litigation," argues the slag downstream is "generally inert." Not unlike Teck.
The Canadian smelter is still pecking away on a "remedial investigation and feasibility study" that began in 2006 under the supervision of the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. That review of environmental conditions in and around the river is expected to be finished by 2015, according to the company.
No progress would be evident without the tenacious pursuit of environmental justice by two leaders of The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation, Joseph Pakootas and Donald Michel, who filed a federal lawsuit in 2004. They were joined by the state.
The legal skirmishing is not over. Four years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal that Teck was not subject to the U.S. Superfund law. The smelter apparently intends to recycle that argument because, golly, how was it to know all that icky stuff would end up downstream in the U. S.?
Arrogance and cynicism are two additional effluvial emissions from Teck Resources Ltd. that will no doubt prove costly for the corporate treasury and stockholders as well.
Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is email@example.com
About Lance Dickie
Lance writes on natural resources and environmental topics, regional issues, national politics and international affairs for the editorial page.
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