Legal victory holds Canadian company accountable for polluting the upper Columbia River

Aerial view of the Columbia River, surrounding forests and a bridge crossing the river
The town of Northport on the Columbia River is near the Canadian border and has been contaminated by toxic releases from the Teck Metals smelter in Trail, British Columbia. 
In a big win for the Colville Tribes and Washington state, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a landmark environmental case this week.

The Supreme Court's denial leaves a September 2018 Ninth Circuit ruling in place, awarding more than $8 million in costs to the Colville Tribes and holding Teck  Metals, a Canadian mining company, liable for nearly 10 million tons of toxic wastes that the company discharged into the upper Columbia River.

This decision marks a major step forward for recovering upper Columbia River valley cleanup costs and natural resource damages.

“This is great news for the Tribes and Washington State,” said Jim Pendowski, program manager for Ecology’s Toxics Cleanup Program. “Teck Metals disposed of millions of tons of wastes into the Upper Columbia River. It’s time that the company is held accountable. This decision will ensure that will happen.”

The company operates the world’s largest lead and zinc smelter just ten miles upstream of the U.S. border in Trail, British Columbia. For nearly a century, it discharged about 400 tons of slag a day directly into the river, as well as liquid wastes. These wastes included metals such as arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, and zinc.

The litigation began back in 2004 after the company refused to abide by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency order requiring Teck to assess the pollution and identify cleanup options. Teck argued that the EPA didn’t have jurisdiction over a Canadian company. Individual members of the Colville Tribes sued with Washington State as co-litigants. The Colville Tribes later joined the litigation.

The case affirms that U.S. federal environmental law applies to a Canadian company when it disposes of hazardous substances in the United States. Teck had claimed that U.S. courts lack jurisdiction over the company, but the Ninth Circuit found it “inconceivable” that Teck didn’t know its toxic waste was aimed at Washington when it discharged it directly to the Columbia River a few miles upstream from the U.S.

“This is a great example of what can be accomplished when two sovereigns — the Colville Tribes and the State of Washington — join forces to protect the environment and hold polluters accountable,” said Rodney Cawston, chairman of the Colville Business Council.

The  state and tribes look forward to cleanup and restoration of the upper Columbia River. Currently, the EPA is overseeing Teck’s investigation of Upper Columbia River contamination. In addition, the  state, the tribes, the Department of Interior, and the Spokane Tribe of Indians are working to recover natural resource damages resulting from Teck’s contamination of the river.