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Originally published Thursday, January 3, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Making progress on ‘nasty stuff’ in the environment

From epic industrial pollution to brake pads and recycling, there is good news for Washington’s environmental progress.

Times editorial columnist

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The Canadian mining and smelting company that knowingly fouled Washington waters for a century published a new corporate history: “Teck Metals Ltd.: Fifty Shades of Effluent.”

The release was overshadowed by a U.S. District Court ruling in December that found the lead and zinc smelter in Trail, B.C., liable for the contamination in the Columbia River.

The book is fiction — I mean I made it up — but the nonfiction finding by U.S. District Judge Lonny Suko in Yakima said the U.S. Superfund law applies to the Canadian company, which used Lake Roosevelt as an industrial sewer.

The company had belatedly acknowledged that decades of nasty funk flowed south, but wrapped itself in the Canadian flag and argued Maple Leaf immunity. The ruling allows state and tribal interests to recover contamination and cleanup costs.

Time for Teck Metals, formerly Teck Cominco, to forgo appeals, quit stalling, accept responsibility for the obvious and start paying up.

Environmental remediation and gains come in all shapes, sizes and time frames. Judge Suko’s important decision came amid other signs of progress.

The state Department of Ecology reports Washington’s recycling rate nudged past 50 percent of all municipal waste for the first time in 2011. That seemed like an inflated goal in 1989 when the 50-percent target was written into state law. Deemed no more than a solid waste of time, it eventually became a household habit.

Metals, cardboard, newspapers and electronics are kept out of landfills, along with demolition and construction materials. Well done, Washington.

Incremental progress to deal with cumulative effects. The state notes that starting this month, “manufacturers of brake-friction materials are required to report to Ecology the concentrations of copper, nickel, zinc, and antimony in brake-friction materials currently sold in Washington State.”

All this nasty stuff finds its way into Puget Sound and other Washington waterways, and it creates a toxic stew for fish. Credit the state Department of Ecology, environmental and legislative champions with the 2010 law that set in motion the phasing out of copper, asbestos and several heavy metals from brakes sold in the state.

The Department of Ecology has spent two years working with automotive industry and environmental groups to come up with a certification process.

Good ideas with legislative legs and promise come out of a collaborative process illustrated by Environmental Lobby Day, hosted by two dozen environmental organizations on Feb. 19 at United Churches of Olympia.

The annual, all-day session is a mix of education, training and lobbying for a slate of environmental priorities. The state Capitol campus is virtually across the street.

Bits and pieces matter. The lesson of ocean acidification is the cumulative effects of degradation. Coal-plant exhaust in China does not stay there. Carbon-dioxide emissions fuel global warming, and there are other issues with acid rain and toxic air pollution along the way.

Shipping U.S. coal to China will have consequences. A variation on the theme was the U.S. experience with Midwest coal-fired power plants yielding acid rain in the East. Remedial laws dating to the 1990s made a difference.

Ocean acidification is a fundamental assault on the food chain for sea life and humans, and we had better acknowledge the reality of how we contribute to the problem.

Speaking of heavy metal, Gen-X will know it has hit a demographic turning point when local public television fundraisers drop the Beatles and Mick Jagger and start to exploit nostalgia for Judas Priest, Guns N’ Roses and Metallica.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is ldickie@seattletimes.com


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