Columbia River toxins moving up food chain

By Craig Welch
Seattle Times staff reporter

VANCOUVER, Wash. — First were the crayfish near Bonneville Dam, so loaded with toxins that scientists wondered how they could still be alive.

Then researchers learned Columbia River fish were contaminated enough that nearby tribes face dramatically higher risks of disease. Scientists since have found deformed sturgeon, uranium building up in clams near the Hanford nuclear reservation, and water in parts of the last stretch of the river as contaminated as Seattle's Duwamish River, a federal Superfund site.

Over the past five years, virtually unnoticed amid other issues, scientists have unearthed a wealth of new information detailing the extent of toxic contamination in the Columbia River, enough that the Environmental Protection Agency added the entire 1,200-mile river to a shortlist of major waterways demanding national attention.

"Salmon recovery and dams have been what people have been focused on," said Mary Lou Soscia, who coordinates Columbia River pollution issues for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "But you can't talk about a healthy Columbia without talking about toxics."

Two centuries after Lewis and Clark followed the river on their final push to the Pacific, the federal government, states and tribes are embarking on an unusually systematic attempt to assess how pollution in the Columbia is altering Northwest ecology.

So far the steps being taken are rudimentary, with modest goals: identify the worst contaminants, figure out where they are coming from, and reduce them by 10 percent in fish and water in five years. But those next few years could lay the groundwork for grander restoration efforts to come.

"The Columbia is a huge, dynamic river system," said Michael Gearheard, who oversees water issues for the EPA in the Northwest. "Is it in crisis? No. But there are areas that merit concern. We want to understand where contamination is coming from, and make sure it is stopped."

Unexpected findings

It's hardly a secret that the Columbia River is polluted. It's been known for years that heavy metals have washed into Lake Roosevelt from a mine in British Columbia, and that Portland Harbor was contaminated by decades of boat-building and steel-milling.

But some of the findings of the past several years have caught officials off-guard:

• Five years ago, a half-century-old pile of poisonous mercury-vapor lamps was discovered in the river near Bonneville Dam, 40 miles east of Portland. The river bottom there was so high in cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that crayfish, a favorite of local fishermen, had 15,000 times more PCBs than is considered safe. The worst of the dump has now been cleaned up, but researchers fear there may be other dumps like it.

• Last year, scientists at the Hanford nuclear reservation found another vast plume of highly radioactive technetium-99 in groundwater that is moving toward the river. It's the most threatening of several plumes that contaminate 80 square miles of groundwater. The Government Accountability Office recently said efforts to keep Hanford contamination from the river are often "not satisfactory."

• Because the Columbia and its tributaries drain an area about the size of France, "legacy pollutants" — chemicals banned in the 1970s such as PCBs and DDT — still flush into the river from farms, roads, construction sites and stormwater systems. They accumulate in fish and other animals at some of the highest levels in the Northwest.

• Newer chemicals, such as pesticides, are entering the river. The amount of PBDE flame retardants in fish near the headwaters in Canada is doubling every few years.

• For some Native Americans, who eat up to 11 times more fish than other Americans, the risk of cancer from toxins in Columbia River salmon may be as high as 1 in 500, the EPA suggested four years ago, which is far higher than the agency's threshold for concern. Risks are even greater for those who eat mostly sturgeon, which have so many chemicals in their bodies scientist believe it's causing the fish's population to decline. Even juvenile salmon may collect enough contaminants to make them more susceptible to disease.

And pollution in the Columbia seems to "move up the food chain faster than in other places in the Northwest," said Jeremy Buck, a scientist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has studied ospreys along the river.

Oversight scattered

Few American rivers have been asked to do as much as the Columbia and its tributaries.

The river system provides recreation and drinking water and helps irrigate a quarter-million square miles of sage desert. It's a highway for farm goods. Thanks to 55 dams, it supplies the cheapest power in the nation, and a lot of it.

Yet unlike Puget Sound, which has been systematically monitored for years, the Columbia system is so huge and regulated by so many different entities that attempts to assess its health have been piecemeal at best.

"It's just unbelievable that all our information on the Columbia is scattered in about 20 different places," said the EPA's Soscia.

For instance, in 2005 the state Department of Ecology found that PCBs and DDT in the lower river regularly exceeded water-quality standards. But the study didn't examine the water upstream of Bonneville Dam, even though researchers believe most DDT is coming from agricultural land above Bonneville.

Meanwhile, large-scale cleanup projects on the Columbia proceed slowly.

The Army Corps of Engineers began investigating a landfill near Bonneville Dam 10 years ago, but it still isn't clean. Seven years ago, the Colville Confederated Tribes urged the EPA to find out whether mining pollution in the Upper Columbia was harming their health. The agency is still investigating.

"It's been our sense that Puget Sound gets far more attention with respect to water quality, restoration and basic protection," said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission. "We sometimes feel Western Washington considers Eastern Washington a sacrifice zone."

In fact, it's often difficult to measure how much has really changed since a major study of the river concluded in the mid-1990s that the Columbia contains "potentially harmful levels" of toxics.

"Based on what I'm familiar with, I think levels in the Columbia are better than they were in the 1960s," said Lyndal Johnson, a toxicologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"But I don't think they've improved much in the last 10 years."

New look at pollution

The EPA, the tribes and the states of Oregon and Washington are hoping to change that.

In the past few years, they have tried coordinating studies to determine the extent of pollution in the river, from Canada to the Pacific.

Later this summer, the results of two detailed studies are expected. One looked at contaminants in the Columbia estuary. The other, by the federal Department of Energy, is a compilation of all available information on the health of the entire river.

And this year the Columbia was placed with Puget Sound, the Everglades, Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, Long Island Sound and the Gulf of Mexico on a list of the EPA's top water priorities for the next five years.

For now, that means the EPA expects to propose a series of small projects to clean up river sediment. Soscia said it also would work with Oregon to toughen water-quality standards to reduce the amount of pollution industries are allowed to spill into the river.

Some of the work already has begun.

A few years ago, Eugene Foster, an Oregon state toxicologist, began working with some farmers to help them cut back on agricultural runoff that was contaminating tributaries with chemicals and insecticide.

Now the orchardists are changing how and where they apply pesticides. They have been better managing how water passes over soil that still has DDT in it. And they are reducing pesticide concentrations.

Similar work has been done along the Yakima River, and both Washington and Oregon are slowly expanding those programs to other Columbia tributaries.

"We've got a marathon ahead of us," Soscia said.

But, "I've worked at EPA for 22 years," she added.

"This is the most important thing I could do in my last years at the agency."

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

Informant: binstock


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