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Canadian mining company liable for pollution flowing from Kootenays to U.S.

Vancouver-based mining giant Teck has run out of appeals after polluting the Columbia River and Lake Roosevelt in Washington State for decades from its huge lead-zinc smelter in Trail, B.C.

The U.S. Supreme Court will not hear Teck’s appeal of the case brought by the Colville Confederated Tribes (CCT) in Washington State.

The CCT successfully argued Teck used the Columbia River in southeastern B.C. as a “convenient disposal facility for its wastes.” 

“This is a battle that the Colville Tribes has been fighting for at least 20 years,” said CCT Chairman Rodney Cawston.

The Supreme Court’s decision to not hear Teck’s appeal leaves a previous ruling in place, awarding over $8 million in legal costs to the tribes. It also makes Teck responsible for cleaning up the damage from decades of pollution.

“Our reservation is situated just below the Canadian border and so a lot of those heavy metals and the waste coming from that corporation was coming down into the upper waters of the Columbia.”

Teck’s zinc and lead smelting and refining complex in Trail, B.C., in 2012. (The Canadian Press)

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals originally ruled Teck routinely discharged thousands of tonnes of heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, mercury and lead into the Columbia from its smelter, and that those pollutants flowed downstream into Washington State and Lake Roosevelt, a reservoir created by the Grand Coulee dam.  

Teck appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the court will not hear the appeal, which means the original judgment stands.

Teck accused of decades of pollution

The U.S. border is about 15 kilometres from the smelter and Teck was essentially accused of using the Columbia River as a toxic discharge system by flushing away slag and heavy metals that blackened beaches downstream.

Teck maintains it has spent millions of dollars cleaning up the Columbia River and a Canadian company should not be held liable for historic pollution under the U.S. Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.

The Columbia River flows south from Trail, across the U.S. border into Washington state.

“While we believe that the application of U.S. environmental laws to industrial facilities is wrong in principle, we have consistently said that if there are real risks to human health [from] the environment associated with historic emissions from Trail operations either in Canada or the U.S., Teck will take appropriate steps to address them,” said Teck spokesperson, Chris Stannell. 

Teck has fought the case since it was launched by the tribes in 1999. The State of Washington joined as co-plaintiff in 2004.

Clean up

“It’s not only for the Colville Tribes, but just for the safety and protection of all the people who access the Columbia River or Lake Roosevelt,” said Cawston.

Teck maintains it has spent over a billion dollars to improve its environmental record at the Trail smelter, cutting air and water emissions by 95 per cent and millions more on river studies and clean up.

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