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DOING SOME DIGGING The Low Road to Clean Water

Here is an environmental dispute whose roots are over 100 years old. It involves TECK COMINCO's Trail metallurgical...



Here is an environmental dispute whose roots are over 100 years old. It involves TECK COMINCO’s Trail metallurgical site in southeastern British Columbia and its downstream neighbours in the United States. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is blaming the Trail smelter for pollution of Lake Roosevelt in the Columbia River. And what truly infuriates me (a U.S. citizen and long-time resident of Canada) is that the EPA wants to apply U.S. laws on Canadian soil.

The first copper furnace was blown at Trail in February 1896. The metallurgical complex has grown enormously, boosted by military demands for lead and zinc during two world wars, until today it is a large, modern integrated producer of 290,000 tonnes/year of zinc and 120,000 tonnes/year of lead. It also turns out 20 other metal and chemical products.

There were no environmental best practices at the end of the 19th century when the original smelter was built. Like many other mining enterprises, the Trail smelter was responsible for contamination at that time. But as popular demand grew and technology improved, so did Teck Cominco’s application of ever-higher standards for emissions and discharges from its operation.

Teck Cominco has a solid record of environmental improvement for over 80 years. In the late 1920s residents of Washington state complained to an international tribunal that airborne emissions, particularly sulphur-laden compounds, were harming their valuable farmland. As ordered, the Trail smelter began to capture sulphur dioxide and make salable acid beginning about 1940. Today the complex sells about 225,000 tonnes of fertilizer annually. Since 1977 Teck Cominco has spent over $1 billion on upgrades and remediation, and the work will continue.

Which brings us to the current dispute. To lay to rest any lingering questions about the effect of slag (which even the EPA classifies as "non-hazardous") in Lake Roosevelt, Teck Cominco volunteered to spend $13 million for human health and ecological studies under direct EPA supervision and to undertake any remediation determined to be necessary. The EPA Region 10 office flatly rejected the company’s offer.

Instead, the EPA wants to order Teck Cominco to submit to the U.S. Superfund cleanup law (CERCLA) in respect to its operations located entirely within Canada. The company argues that U.S. domestic laws are not enforceable in Canada. The company also fears that the EPA would expand the study to organic contaminants, which could not have possibly originated in Trail. (Personally, I think the United States would like to enforce all its laws and regulations wholesale on the entire world.)

Negotiations broke off in November, says Doug Horswill, Teck Cominco senior VP of environment, because the two sides disagree on the process of resolving the dispute. In a nutshell, Teck Cominco wants to go ahead with study and remediation following regulations outlined by the EPA, but the EPA wants to go to court and get U.S. laws applied in Canada first. Moreover, Horswill accuses the EPA of "misrepresenting" Teck Cominco’s offer and in certain cases issuing wrong information. Teck Cominco’s proposals, arguments and webcasts are posted at www.teckcominco.com. The EPA’s references to the matter at www.epa.gov are obtuse, but can be found by searching for Lake Roosevelt.

This writer wonders why the EPA is less concerned with the cleanup of any potential hazard than in throwing its weight around. What business does the U.S. have trying to enforce its law on Canadian soil? This country has been extremely co-operative with its southern neighbour for close to 200 years. Teck Cominco not only has an exemplary environmental record at Trail and all its operations, but it, too, has offered far more co-operation than the EPA deserves. Moreover, the International Joint Commission could settle the quarrel as it did in the 1930s. Why won’t the EPA take advantage of an existing resolution mechanism? Why won’t it work with Teck Cominco to clear up any lingering doubts about the slag in Lake Roosevelt?

Let the two sides argue, but Teck Cominco and Canadians must win. In the meantime, I have every confidence that the company is as environmentally responsible as it is technically possible to be. Too bad the EPA’s primary goal is litigation instead of environmental concerns; the agency has definitely taken the low road.


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