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Originally published Sunday, May 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Canadian smelter slag triggers EPA study of Lake Roosevelt

As the fine, black sand sparkles alongside the blue waters of Lake Roosevelt, it's hard to believe it is the source of an international...

The Associated Press

NORTHPORT, Stevens County — As the fine, black sand sparkles alongside the blue waters of Lake Roosevelt, it's hard to believe it is the source of an international dispute.

But the granular material is not sand. It's slag — waste from the giant lead and zinc smelter located a few miles north in the Canadian town of Trail, British Columbia.

The slag is extremely fine and looks like it contains glass chips. It is so light it floats. Much of it ended up on the shoreline, turning white beaches black.

At a diplomatic impasse with a Canadian company over cleaning the pollution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in April launched a $20 million study to determine whether the beaches, fish and plants along Lake Roosevelt are safe for humans.

The study comes six years after it was first requested by the Colville Confederated Tribes, whose reservation borders the lake.

"Finally we are out here in the field doing bread-and-butter work," said David Croxton, manager of the EPA's Upper Columbia River unit.

This is not the way the EPA wanted the study to proceed. The agency demanded in late 2003 that Teck Cominco Ltd., owner of the smelter, pay for the study. But the company, based in Vancouver, B.C., refused, saying it is not subject to U.S. law.

The dispute is now in the hands of diplomats for the two nations.

Last summer, Paul Cellucci, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, told the EPA that he opposed a Superfund cleanup for Lake Roosevelt due to concerns about the precedent it could set. Some U.S. mining and electric companies fear Canada would have grounds to complain about air and water pollution from their operations.

Last November, officials for the State Department held a closed-door meeting in Spokane on the issue, following meetings in Washington, D.C., and Ottawa over the transboundary dispute.

In a Sept. 14 letter to the government of Canada, Terry Breese, director of the Office of Canadian Affairs, said the Bush administration may be willing to settle for a bilateral, mediated solution.

But no deal has been reached, so EPA decided to begin the study now and seek money from Teck Cominco in the future.

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The EPA contends that as much as 20 million tons of heavy-metal pollutants flowed for decades from the smelter, down the Columbia River and into Washington waters. Smelter operators dumped the slag into the river until the mid-1990s.

The Colvilles sued the company last July for failing to comply with the cleanup order, and the state of Washington joined the lawsuit in September.

Teck Cominco has proposed spending $13 million to study the pollution at Lake Roosevelt. The EPA rejected the offer, saying the company's study plans were insufficient.

Teck Cominco has no problem with EPA starting the study alone.

"We've never opposed studying the lake," said Dave Godlewski, a spokesman for Teck Cominco American Ltd., in Spokane.

The study is necessary to establish health risks, and any agreement reached between the two governments is certain to deal with the costs of the work, Godlewski said.

The battle already has moved to the federal courts. Two Colville tribal leaders sued Teck Cominco to try to enforce EPA's cleanup order. On Nov. 8, U.S. District Judge Alan McDonald refused to dismiss that lawsuit, and the issue of whether a Canadian company is subject to U.S. Superfund law will be heard by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the meantime, a team of researchers has begun taking and analyzing 400 samples of sediment along a 130-mile stretch of the lake from Grand Coulee Dam to the Canadian border. Lake Roosevelt is the name of the portion of the Columbia River behind the dam.

The samples will be analyzed for toxic substances, such as arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury and zinc. They'll also be tested for dioxin, pesticides and other contaminants.

"The beaches should be safe for recreational uses," predicted Kevin Rochlin of EPA, co-manager of the project.

Fish, already the subject of a health-advisory warning limiting how often they should be eaten, will be studied starting in the fall, Rochlin said.

The study is expected to determine if people's health or the environment is at risk, show if a cleanup program is needed, and develop cleanup options.

The U.S. Geological Survey recently released the results of a 2002 study of sediment cores taken at six locations on Lake Roosevelt. That report contended that decades of liquid effluent from the Teck Cominco smelter contributed most of the heavy metals detected in the samples.

Those tests also showed that slag particles in some sediments were breaking down and could release more contamination into the lake.

Rochlin said the new report should be ready by early next year.

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