It's not often that the United States serves as a dumping ground for a foreign factory, but that is happening in the remote northeast corner of Washington.
The Environmental Protection Agency is trying to force a Canadian company to clean up decades of toxic smelter waste that have flowed down the Columbia River into Lake Roosevelt.
The EPA recently broke off talks with Teck Cominco Ltd., saying the Vancouver, British Columbia-based company was not serious about cleaning up the waste, and the federal agency is now pursuing legal action.
At issue is Teck Cominco's giant lead and zinc smelter on the banks of the Columbia River in Trail, British Columbia, 10 miles north of the U.S.-Canada border. The EPA contends the smelter is the largest source of metals pollution in Lake Roosevelt.
Teck Cominco Chief Executive Officer David Thompson wrote in a letter to the EPA that his company does not have to meet all requirements of U.S. environmental law because it operates entirely in Canada.
The EPA opposes that position, contending that since the waste ended up in the United States, Teck Cominco is required to clean it to American specifications. The agency acknowledged it may be breaking new legal ground.
"We do have a valid legal theory for how to do so, but the nature of it is precedent setting or close to it," said Dave Croxton, the EPA's regional cleanup manager in Seattle.
In response, Teck Cominco is seeking diplomatic resolution.
"We have raised the matter with the government of Canada and they have indicated their need to deal with their counterparts in the government of the United States," Thompson said.
This month, the EPA formally warned Teck Cominco that it should agree to the agency's demands, or prepare to be sued. The company replied that the EPA effort could backfire, with U.S. companies finding themselves in legal trouble with Canada over cross-border pollution.
Last year, an EPA study of sediment samples concluded the portion of Lake Roosevelt from Inchelium to the Canadian border already qualified for Superfund listing because of hazards to aquatic life from heavy metals.
The metals flow down the river into Lake Roosevelt. The reservoir is a national recreation area used by 1 million boaters, swimmers and fishermen each year. Smelter operations have dumped an estimated 10 million to 20 million tons of slag into the river. Slag is a smelting byproduct that contains lead, arsenic and mercury.
Exposure to heavy metals can cause brain and kidney damage, behavioral disorders, blindness, deafness, and mental retardation. Children and fetuses are especially sensitive.
The EPA is launching a study of the extent of the pollution. The study is expected to take four years and cost $10 million. The agency also said it will pursue legal action against Teck Cominco in U.S. federal court to recover those costs, plus $1.8 million it has already spent studying the pollution.
Environmentalists are cheered by the action.
"Teck Cominco has illegally treated our Columbia River as their sewer and Lake Roosevelt as their cesspool," said Bob Jackman of Citizens for a Clean Columbia, an environmental group. "For decades, Teck Cominco has been a bad corporate neighbor."
Teck Cominco has contended the pollution came from several sources and it shouldn't be saddled with all the costs. A smelter has been operating at the site since the early 1900s.
Thompson said Teck Cominco wants to work voluntarily with the EPA and local governments to try and resolve the issues. The company has offered to spend $13 million on studies, and has agreed to some other EPA demands.
But Croxton said Teck Cominco's offer falls well short of EPA cleanup standards that would apply to any polluter in the United States. "In our view they ignored some of the basics," Croxton said.
The only other time the United States has collected from a Canada company for cross-border pollution involved the same Trail-based smelter operation.
In 1938, an international tribunal ruled that British Columbia and Cominco Ltd. were responsible for crop damage to Northport-area farmers from smelter emissions. The U.S. government eventually collected $428,000.