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Friday, January 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Canada draws the line over obligations for river cleanup
By Christopher Schwarzen
The letter, sent to the State Department and bearing the stamp of Ambassador Michael Kergin's office, said smelter owner Teck Cominco followed Canada's environmental regulations and cannot be forced to meet U.S. standards in cleaning up 100 years of contaminated slag in Washington's signature river, an EPA official said.
The letter, sent last week, ratchets up the political interest in the border dispute to "Cabinet levels," said the EPA official, who didn't want to be named. But there is little concern U.S. authorities will back down from trying to force Teck Cominco to pay for a lengthy and, most likely, expensive cleanup.
In a separate letter dated Wednesday to EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt, Washington's two senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, urged that there be no delays in studying Lake Roosevelt to determine whether pollution there poses any significant risks to human health and the environment.
"Cleanup of Lake Roosevelt is critical to the local communities, tribes and the long-term stability of the regional economy," the letter stated.
The EPA says Teck Cominco's lead and zinc smelter in Trail, B.C., has polluted the Columbia River from the U.S. border to the south end of Lake Roosevelt a length of 130 miles. Whole beaches along the river are thick with the mill's black slag, a smelting byproduct laced with lead, mercury and arsenic.
EPA officials spent most of last year negotiating with Teck Cominco, in hopes the company would sign an order to study health effects and to participate in cleanup.
Teck Cominco agreed to pay for the health study, but refused to be governed by EPA regulations. The international mining company broke off talks with the EPA in November, forcing the agency to pursue legal action against the company, according to the EPA.
Studies show the area is dirty enough to qualify as a Superfund site, a designation for the most polluted properties in the nation, which can pose dangers to human health.
The EPA plans to continue with a river and beach cleanup that could require the removal of thousands of tons of slag.
EPA officials said yesterday they hope to know within weeks what funding will be available for a study of the impact on health. The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, whose land borders the contaminated area, has said it fears that the impact on health from swimming and drinking the water, as well as eating fish from the river.
The letter, although not requesting a U.S. response or issuing an ultimatum, could cause delay if the State Department becomes involved in the dispute.
"The minute it gets to the foreign consular level, it kicks in all the Cabinet offices," the unnamed EPA official said. "This naturally requires a great deal of meetings and phone calls to determine whether a response is needed."
Christopher Schwarzen: 425-783-0577 or email@example.com
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