Yes, We Did: Canadian Mining Company Admits to Polluting U.S. River for Over 100 Years

Slag, a byproduct of smelting ore, and other chemicals have been ruining Washington's Columbia River.
The Teck Resources Ltd. plant in British Columbia, Canada. (Bloomberg/Getty)
Sep 11, 2012
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

It’s not often that a large company comes clean, so to speak, and admits to having caused pollution. But that’s exactly what Teck Resources Limited, a Canadian metals and mining company based in Vancouver, has just done.

The Company “has admitted that mining waste and effluent from its Trail smelter polluted the Columbia River across the U.S.-Canada border in Washington State,” reports the Edmonton Journal. “Its subsidiary, Teck Metals Ltd., agreed to these facts as part of a civil lawsuit with U.S. plaintiffs.”

They add, “The Teck Metals agreement released Monday acknowledges some portion of the effluent and slag from its Trail operations in southeastern B.C. were transported and present in the Upper Columbia River in the U.S., and that some hazardous substances were released into the environment in the U.S.”

MORE: Where Is That Pollution From Originally?

And here’s the really shocking part: This has been going on for over 100 years.

Production began at the Trail smelter in 1906 and The Columbia Experience has created a “timeline of the Teck Trail B.C. Smelter’s permitted pollution and accidental spills . . . using data from their records and documentation of events, as well as data from The Canadian B.C. Environment Ministry.”

Some early 20th-century highlights (the company was known as Teck Cominco until 2008):

“1933 – Farmers from Northport and Marcus sue Teck Cominco for damages the smelters air pollution caused to their stock and crops."

“1940 – Teck Cominco is admittedly dumping up to 1000 tons of heavy metal toxins (slag) into the river daily.”

Fast forward to 2003 when The Spokesman-Review reported, “One of the world's largest smelters routinely dumped metals-polluted slag and more toxic chemicals than allowed into the Columbia River, but has rarely been fined by its British Columbia regulators. Over a 60-year period, the Trail B.C., smelter poured up to 9.8 million tons of slag into the river, which flows south into Eastern Washington and forms Lake Roosevelt behind Grand Coulee Dam.”

“Now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is leaning on Teck Cominco to clean up the historic pollution voluntarily, or face a costly Superfund bill. The EPA was pushed into action by the Colville Confederated Tribes, which petitioned the EPA in 1999 to study pollution in Lake Roosevelt, the 130-mile impoundment of the Columbia behind the dam.”

And this literally is when the dam began to break in terms of making progress against Teck’s claims that the company doesn’t have to meet all the requirements of U.S. environmental law because it operates entirely in Canada, and that other unidentified polluters may have also contributed to the problem.

With yesterday’s admission, the Edmonton Journal reported that the company “is expected to allow the court to find that Teck is potentially liable for damages. However, Teck says the statement of facts doesn’t concede the pollution caused any harm.”

They quote Dave Godlewski, vice-president of environment and public affairs for U.S. subsidiary Teck American, saying “We haven’t agreed to the amount of injury that’s potentially the result of that (pollution release)—certainly not the risk to human health and the environment.”

Yet, the Journal said, “Costs of a cleanup on the Columbia River have been estimated as high as $1 billion.” But they then add that, "Teck said based on its own studies it estimates the 'compensable value of any damage will not be material.'”

A resolution to these questions, including possible legal liability and damages, is part of ongoing studies that should be completed by 2015.

Stay tuned.

Do you think Teck Resources will ever pay a fine or contribute a signifcant amount of money to clean up the Columbia River?

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence |

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