Spokane – The state of Washington and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation received news of a significant victory today in federal court.
The United States' Superfund law that governs cleanup of contaminated sites applies to Teck Cominco Metals of Canada, regardless of the fact that the pollution the company poured into Lake Roosevelt originated in Canada.
This decision was filed today in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle. The court upheld an earlier decision by Federal District Court Judge Alan McDonald.
Two members of the Colville Tribe filed the original lawsuit under the citizen-suit provision of the Superfund law, to force Teck Cominco to investigate and characterize the extent of the contamination
in Lake Roosevelt.
The state of Washington intervened because Governor Chris Gregoire and state environmental leaders believed that the company, not United States' taxpayers, should pay for the cleanup.
Cominco argued that the Superfund law does not apply to a Canadian company that discharged hazardous wastes from a Canadian facility, and therefore appealed the District Court decision to the
Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
"This decision is great news for all Washingtonians. The Columbia River is a lifeline of the Pacific Northwest and the taxpayers should not have to foot the clean-up bill for contamination by a private
company," said Governor Chris Gregoire. "Teck Cominco and its predecessors used our state as a dumping ground for 90 years and they should pay for the cleanup."
"This is an important decision for the state of Washington because it holds polluters accountable even if the pollution comes from Canada," agreed Attorney General Rob McKenna. “Special recognition goes to Assistant Attorneys General Alex Smith and Kristie Carevich for their expertise in this case.”
This decision has implications for any state that borders a foreign country. If a foreign company contaminates land within the U.S., the state can rely on United States law to govern cleanup and liability, instead of having to rely on less certain diplomatic processes.
"We expect this decision will result in Teck Cominco moving forward to investigate and clean up the contamination in the river and sediments to state and federal cleanup standards," said Washington
Department of Ecology (Ecology) Director Jay Manning.
"We need Lake Roosevelt beaches, shoreline areas and bottom sediments of Lake Roosevelt to be cleaned up to the standards necessary to protect both human health and the environment from the effects of heavy-metals pollution," Manning explained.
"Cominco's historic unwillingness to step up to the plate has forced the Colville Tribes and the state to pursue this suit to protect the citizens of Washington State," said Manning.
In early June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Teck Cominco Metals, in Canada, entered into an unusual agreement by which the company agreed to complete an investigation of contamination and conduct an evaluation of cleanup options under EPA oversight. The agreement limited state and tribal ability to participate fully in the cleanup process.
"We believe this decision will strengthen EPA's agreement with Cominco, which was executed as a private contract between the federal government and an international mining company," said Ecology's Manning.
For more than 90 years, Cominco and its predecessors discharged mining waste directly into the Columbia River, which then flowed into Washington from smelter operations in Trail, British Columbia, causing significant heavy-metal contamination in Lake Roosevelt, the large reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam.
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Jani Gilbert, Ecology public information manager, 509-329-3495; cell, 509-990-9177
Janelle Guthrie, AG Media Relations Director, (360) 586-0725