Teck has admitted in a U.S. court that more than 100 years of historic effluent from its mining and smelting operations in Trail have polluted the Columbia River in Washington.
Teck Metals made the “admission of fact” in a lawsuit brought by Colville Confederated Tribes over environmental damage caused by the effluent discharges dating back to 1896.
As a result, the company has entered into an agreement regarding certain facts with the plaintiffs—in Pakootas et al versus Teck Metals Ltd.—in civil court proceedings under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA).
Under the agreement Teck stated some hazardous substances in the slag and effluent discharged from the Teck Trail Operations between 1896 and 1995 ended up in the Upper Columbia River in the U.S.
Teck communications manager Richard Deane said the court proceedings are one more step in the process of righting the alleged wrong.
“The hurdle for establishing (discharge) is very low,” said Deane. “It takes only a molecule of a hazardous substance to be released to meet that requirement.”
The litigation will ultimately establish what level of restoration, if any, is needed to restore natural resources that may have been injured by historic Trail Operations releases, and determine if any monetary compensation is due to the Colville Tribes or the State of Washington for their response costs.
Deane says the agreement prevents what could have been a long and costly trial on the matters of fact, one that was expected to commence Monday if the agreement had not been made.
“This agreement on these facts will preclude the requirement to have a legal proceeding to in effect determine these exact set of facts,” said Deane.
Despite the agreement, important scientific issues, as well as jurisdictional and other legal issues relating to the case remain to be resolved.
In 2006, Teck voluntarily entered into an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to fund remedial investigations and feasibility studies for the Upper Columbia River. That resulted in the withdrawal of an unilateral administrative order slapped on the company in 1999 and the dismissal of the original claims of the tribes in the state.
But in 2007 the band launched a lawsuit requiring Teck to comply with a U.S. EPA order to undertake the environmental study because progress over the past three years was deemed “disappointing.”
Deane said Teck remains “fully committed to complete the studies required to fully assess the risks due to contaminants in the Upper Columbia,” and if necessary remedy the effects of its past practices on the Upper Columbia River if there are any unnecessary risks that need to be addressed.
The agreement provides the minimal framework to allow the court to rule for the plaintiffs—the Colville bands and the state—in their claim for a judgment that Teck Metals was liable for response costs.
“The amount of the response costs will be determined in a subsequent phase of the case,” Deane said.
The environmental assessment funded by Teck is expected to be completed in 2015 on the Upper Columbia River—to determine the impacts to human health and environment—and will be used in those subsequent court proceedings to determine if Teck must pay any costs.
“The results are showing that the beach is safe and the water quality is better than any water quality standard,” said Deane. “And the fish are … safer than any other water body in the State of Washington.”
Through modernization and implementation of new technology there have been substantial improvements in the environmental performance of Teck, said Deane. Through new furnace technology and other recent modifications to the site, the company achieved a 95 per cent reduction of metals to air and water, he said.
For the state Department of Ecology, the admission is a major victory in what has been a long, drawn-out fight.
“It’s very good news for us,” spokeswoman Jani Gilbert told The Canadian Press. “It means that everyone is accepting the science … and we’re just closer in the process to getting some resolution of this.”
When Teck American, the U.S. subsidiary of Teck Resources, cleaned up Black Sand Beach two years ago, they hauled away 9,100 tonnes of slag.
The lawsuit brought by the Colville Confederated Tribes claims that 145,000 tonnes has been dumped directly into the river, where it has flowed downstream and settled on the riverbed. Bottom-feeding aquatic species eat it and the metals begin their journey up the food chain.
“It changes the ecosystem,” Gilbert said.
The lawsuit claims the metals have contaminated the surface water, ground waters and sediments of the upper Columbia River and Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir created by the Grand Coulee Dam. The 5,700-square-kilometre Colville reservation borders the Columbia River.
The cost of cleaning up the contamination has been pegged as high as $1 billion, and the state wants Teck to bear that cost.
Tale of litigation
In March, 2009, a U.S. court ordered Teck Cominco to pay the legal fees of Washington’s Colville Indian band in its fight against the company over pollution from the Trail smelter. The Washington state court Teck Cominco was subject to U.S. environmental law.
At the time, the band said the court ordered the company to pay more than US$1 million in legal fees the Colville band has spent suing Teck.
The band says millions of tons of toxic pollution have been dumped into the Columbia River from the lead and zinc smelter in Trail, which is about 15 kilometres north of the B.C.-Washington state border.
The band first petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1999 to ensure Teck complied with the U.S. Superfund law, legislation aimed at cleaning up the nation’s worst toxic waste sites.
Under the Superfund law, companies must first conduct a scientific assessment of environmental damage and then clean it up.
In 2004, two members of the band launched the lawsuit. Joseph Pakootas and Donald Michel sought a court order for Teck Cominco to comply with a U.S. EPA order to undertake the study.
The mining company then reached a settlement agreement with the EPA but the band said the progress over the past three years was “disappointing.”
Under the agreement, the company is supposed to complete a voluntary remedial investigation and feasibility study to determine any risk to human health and the environment as a result from past releases from the smelter in Trail. Teck has said the study would be done in 2011.