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Federal judge takes case under advisement

SPOKANE, Wash. -- A federal judge in Yakima will decide whether a Canadian mining company must pay to clean up pollution that for decades crossed the border into Lake Roosevelt in Washington.

U.S. District Court Judge Lonny Suko heard motions on the lawsuit Wednesday and said he will issue a decision later this year.

The long-running lawsuit was filed by the Colville Tribes against Teck Metals Ltd. of Vancouver, British Columbia. The company operates a huge smelter at Trail, British Columbia, that for nearly a century dumped mining slag into the Columbia River.

Heavy metals pollution traveled down the river into the United States at Lake Roosevelt, which is the 150-mile long reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam.

One major issue is whether a Canadian company is subject to U.S. environmental law.

John Sirois, chairman of the Colville Tribes, said U.S. law should prevail.

"Where does the pollution end up? That's where the jurisdiction should end up," Sirois said after the hearing.

Last month, on the eve of trial, Teck Metals reached a settlement in the case in which it admitted that some portion of the mining pollution in the reservoir came from its smelter. The settlement eliminated the need for a trial scheduled for September, but numerous jurisdictional and other legal issues remain.

Teck is one of Canada's largest mining companies, and its lead-zinc smelter 10 miles north of the U.S. border is among the largest of its kind in the world. State and federal authorities contend the company and its predecessors discharged mining slag into the river from 1896 to 1995.

That slag then flowed into Washington, causing significant heavy metal contamination in Lake Roosevelt.

A decade ago, the Colville Tribes petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to assess contamination in the reservoir. In 2003, the EPA decided that Teck was subject to the U.S. Superfund law. The agency demanded the company pay for studies to determine the extent of the contamination, and then clean it up.

The tribes filed suit in 2004 to force Teck to comply with that order, and the state joined the lawsuit as an intervener.

In 2009, a federal judge ordered Teck to reimburse the Colvilles for more than $1 million the tribes' had spent on the case over five years.

The company in 2006 reached a deal with the EPA to study the extent of the pollution in Lake Roosevelt. That study is expected to be finished in 2015. Teck contends the extent and cost of cleanup cannot be determined until that study is finished.

Teck contends that study results so far have shown that water in the lake meets Canadian and U.S. quality standards, that beaches are safe for recreational use and that fish in the river system is safe to eat.