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Colville Tribes win environmental lawsuit against Teck Metals

A judge in the United States District Court in Yakima issued a ruling that Canadian mining and smelting giant Teck Metals, Ltd. is liable under United States environmental law for contaminating the Columbia River with millions of tons of smelting waste.

In finding Teck liable under the Comprehensive, Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA, also known as Superfund), Judge Lonny R. Suko ruled that, “For decades Teck’s leadership knew its slag and effluent flowed from Trail downstream and are now found in Lake Roosevelt, but nonetheless Teck continued discharging wastes into the Columbia River.” The court noted Teck’s manager’s recognition that it, “had been treating Lake Roosevelt as a free, convenient disposal facility for its wastes.” Given this conduct and connection with Washington, Judge Suko decided that Teck could be tried in Washington, even though its smelter is located in Canada.

Included in the decision, the judge determined:

Between 1930 and 1995, Teck intentionally discharged at least 9.97 million tons of slag, including heavy metals such as lead, zinc, mercury, cadmium, copper and arsenic, directly into the Columbia river via outfalls at its Trail smelter.

Teck knew its disposal of hazardous waste into the Upper Columbia River was likely to cause harm, and was told by the Canadian government that its slag was toxic to fish and leached hazardous metals.

Pursuant to CERCLA, Teck is liable to the Tribes and the State in any subsequent action or actions to recover past or future response costs at the Upper Columbia River site.

The Court’s finding that Teck is liable under CERCLA will give EPA the power to force Teck to fund necessary clean up.

First filed in 2004, the lawsuit arose from Teck’s refusal to comply with United States Superfund law to study the nature and extent of hazardous substances discharged by the mining company in and around Lake Roosevelt and the Upper Columbia River. The smelter is located directly on the Columbia River. Teck’s smelting wastes have been documented throughout the 150 mile reach of the Columbia River between the Canadian border and Grand Coulee Dam.

The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation joined the lawsuit in 2005. For seven years, the Tribes, together with the State of Washington, litigated to obtain these results – the determination that Teck is subject to United States environmental law and is obligated to investigate and clean up contamination in the Upper Columbia River and Lake Roosevelt.

Teck finally conceded that it dumped nearly 10 million tons of smelting waste into the Columbia River, some of which included hazardous substances that deposited in the United States, and that its wastes leached heavy metals into the environment.

Together with other governmental entities, the Tribes and the State are actively planning studies necessary to identify the extent of injury and damage in the river, as well as in the upland areas. Once complete, the Tribes and State will return for another trial to address the damages that have resulted from the decades of release of hazardous substances in the Upper Columbia River, Lake Roosevelt, and the upland region.