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Oil v. Culture: The Battle Goes on to Protect Columbia River

The Columbia River continues to be a focus of the fight between big coal and cultural ties of tribal nations – the latest fight is another oil project.

Spring chinook were journeying up the Columbia River, returning to their natal streams to spawn. Lamprey were returning too, as Native leaders, elected officials and environmental warriors gathered at Mosier on June 3 to protest against crude-oil rail shipments along the great river The People know as Nch’i-Wana.

On that day a year ago, a Union Pacific train carrying highly flammable crude oil derailed in Mosier. Firefighters battled for 14 hours to contain the fire. Residents and students at a nearby school were evacuated. An oil sheen spread on the river. The community of Mosier lost sewer and water service for days because of contamination. One year later, Mosier’s groundwater is still contaminated.

As people gathered here a year later, another battle against time was being fought on Nch’i-Wana, One hundred miles northwest in Goble, Oregon. The U.S. Coast Guard and two Oregon state agencies were working to contain and remove contamination from some 28 derelict vessels at a site that had been leased from the state for restoration of the River Queen, a former passenger ferry and tourist attraction.


From 2012-15, an estimated 27 more vessels in various states of disrepair were brought to the site by the lessees, the Coast Guard reported. Three vessels sank within a 12-month period.

In 2016, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality imposed a penalty of $200,783 on the lessees for accumulation of solid waste, asbestos-containing material, and the release of petroleum fuel into the river. The lease was terminated and the lessees ordered to remove the vessels and vacate the site by May 31, 2017.

As of June 1, seven vessels remained on the site and the Coast Guard and Oregon Department of State Lands were overseeing final cleanup. By June 10, more than 39,000 gallons of oil and oily water were pumped out of those vessels; polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) was found in more than 8,000 gallons of that oil, the Coast Guard reported. “Contractors have also removed 1 ton of hazardous materials including antifreeze, methyl ethyl ketene, paint, animal poisons, solvents and cleaners,” the Coast Guard reported. “There have also been 25 cylinders of propane or acetylene emptied through flaring.”

Columbia River, Train Derailment, Mosier Oregon

Smoke billows from the 2016 train derailment in Mosier, Oregon along the Columbia River.

“The Coast Guard’s priority is to eliminate all substantial oil and hazardous material threats” associated with the vessels, USCG Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Madjeksa said in an announcement of the cleanup. He said “mitigation of the threat for pollution” will result in “a cleaner, more useful and more sustainable waterfront.”

But an untold amount of toxins had already gotten into the river. And this is a familiar story all along the lower Columbia.

The Hanford Site, a decommissioned nuclear weapons production plant owned by the U.S. government, “dumped billions of gallons of radioactive wastes on the banks and into the Columbia River” between 1944 and 1987, according to Columbia Riverkeeper, a nonprofit that works with affected communities to see cleanups along the Columbia River to fruition. Among those sites: former Alcoa smelters in Longview and Vancouver, Washington; and a former Kaiser Shipyard site in Vancouver.

Toxins removed or being removed from the old smelter and shipyard sites include cyanide, fluoride, lead, petroleum byproducts, and PCBs.

The Yakama Nation is a funding or tracking partner in the cleanup of 17 sites from Gresham, east of Portland, Oregon; to Ilwaco, Washington, near where the Columbia meets the Pacific. Every season, migrating fish must journey through a gauntlet of industrial chemicals, spilled oil, and wood and pulp mill waste to get between spawning grounds and the ocean.

The river has taken its toll on fish. In the early 1980s, Oregon fish and game officials tried to blame Yakama fisherman David Sohappy and other River People for 40,000 salmon that didn’t make It to the Bonneville Dam. The salmon were later found in other tributaries, having taken a detour because of pollution they encountered on their journey.

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In recent studies by Columbia Riverkeeper:

Carp near Vancouver, Washington, contained PCBs 30 times the EPA limit for unrestricted consumption, mercury 3.5 times the EPA limit, as well as flame retardants and other heavy metals.

Shad caught near Bonneville Dam contained endocrine-disrupting flame retardants and heavy metals.

Steelhead, which spend part of their lives in the ocean, contained high levels of mercury and flame retardants.

Walleye from the Multnomah Channel contained PCBs 175 times the EPA limit for unrestricted consumption.

And according to the Governor of Washington’s Salmon Recovery Office, the lower Columbia supports 74 populations of salmon, steelhead, and bull trout, “but only 8 [populations] are at or above abundance-recovery goals.”

Yakama Chairman, JoDe Goudy

Yakama Chairman JoDe Goudy speaks at a press conference on June 9, 2016 regarding efforts to protect the Columbia River from further environmental harm.

New coal, oil terminals proposed

To the First Peoples of the river – the Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Spring and Nez Perce –the Columbia is tied to their culture. To industries, the Columbia is tied to the Pacific and markets along the Pacific Rim.

Millennium Bulk Terminals proposes building a coal export terminal in Longview, at the former Alcoa smelter site. If approved, the site would receive eight trains each day and would load an average of 70 vessels per month or 840 vessels per year – that equates to 44 million metric tons of coal per year, according to the company, and 1,680 vessel transits in the Columbia River annually. The terminal would operate 24 hours per day, seven days per week.


The project already faces some hurdles. A county and state review of the potential environmental impacts of the proposed coal terminal issued on April 28 determined increased locomotive diesel particulate matter, a toxic air pollutant, would cause an unavoidable increase in cancer risk rates in a neighborhood along the rail line in Longview; slow-moving, 1.3-mile-long trains could cause traffic jams during peak commute times in Cowlitz County; and transporting, handling, and burning the coal overseas would increase global greenhouse gas emissions by about 2 million metric tons.

The Multnomah County, Oregon Health Department cited data that identified “six potential local environmental effects of concern related to coal transportation”: Emission of particulate matter in the form of coal dust; emission of particulate matter in the form of diesel locomotive exhaust; production of noise and vibration by train movement; congestion and collisions along roadways and rail lines; train derailments; fires due to spontaneous combustion of coal.

In addition, the Oregon Public Utilities Commission is considering whether Global Partners can develop an oil-by-rail export terminal at an industrial site near Clatskanie, Oregon. Global Partners is a Fortune 500 company that stores, distributes and markets fuels – including biofuel -- throughout the United States. The company also owns 1,000 gas stations in the Northeast.

Global Partners wants to buy nine oil tanks and an oil pipeline connecting the tanks to a dock on the Columbia River. Stand Up to Oil, a non-profit environmental advocacy group, is encouraging people to sign an online petition against the terminal.

A public hearing was held June 13 in Salem, Oregon. The PUC will have the final say on whether the purchase can proceed.