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EPA looks to unlock Superfund dollars for Columbia River site in northeast Washington

A view of the city of Trail and the lead and zinc smelter in the West Kootenay, British Columbia, Canada.
Nalidsa Sukprasert/Getty Images/iStockphoto
A view of the city of Trail and the lead and zinc smelter in the West Kootenay, British Columbia, Canada.

In a pocket of northeast Washington, years of pollution from a giant smelter complex just north of the Canadian border has left Columbia River sediment and soil contaminated with lead, arsenic, and other hazardous metals.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday it is proposing to add the area to what’s known as the National Priorities List, which would unlock cleanup funding through the federal Superfund Program. The Upper Columbia River site — as it’s called by the EPA — covers about 150 miles along the Columbia River, from the Grand Coulee Dam to the U.S.-Canada border.

Gov. Jay Inslee endorsed the federal agency’s plan. “The legacy of contamination and risks to human health and the environment justify adding the site to the National Priorities List. It is time to turn needed attention to clean up,” he said in a statement.

Jarred-Michael Erickson, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and Gregory Abrahamson, chairman of the Spokane Tribal Business Council also voiced support.

In 2006, the U.S. federal government and the smelter facility’s owner, Teck Metals, entered into a settlement agreement to study the contamination. A human health risk assessment carried out under the agreement was completed in 2021.

“The agency has determined that soils contaminated with lead and arsenic pose unacceptable risk to residents at affected properties, particularly to children,” EPA said in a news release.

While the Teck Metals facility, located in Trail, British Columbia, is primarily blamed for the contamination, a former smelter in Northport, Washington also contributed to the pollution, according to the agency. And mining activity has occurred in the region since the mid-1800s.

Teck’s agreement with the federal government does not require the company to complete a comprehensive cleanup at the site. EPA’s proposal to make the site eligible for Superfund dollars could help to speed up remediation.

A 60-day public comment period will begin March 7 on EPA’s proposal. The agency plans to make a final decision as early as September on whether to add the site to the National Priorities List.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.