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Human health risk assessment on Upper Columbia River

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NESPELEM, Wash. – The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation have been subjected to pollutants coming downstream in the Columbia River from British Columbia, Canada for more than a century. It’s unknown what the risk is to human life and that’s the basis for a recent assessment.

Patti Bailey, enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, is project manager on this study. She was raised along the river at Inchelium so has a personal connection in addition to a tribal connection. “The adults for years had no idea what was going in the river.” It’s hoped that in the next 18 months some answers to the questions will be found.

The survey she is heading up is part of the human health risk assessment. There is also an ecological risk assessment being done. “It’s within the bounds of the Colville Indian Reservation and within our ceded territory. The site is clearly within our tribal members’ homeland and the natural

resources we utilize here.”

This aspect of the study basically focuses on how much, and why, tribal members are using the resources, all the things affected by the water. Bailey said this involves fish consumption but also plants used for medicines and utility, the wildlife, and spiritually related ceremonial activities. “How are people utilizing the resource? What sort of pathways may they be exposed to if there are

contaminants here?”

“We’re really just trying to get a handle on if there is risk for tribal membership. That’s been one of our goals since we led this effort to have an adequate assessment done here.”

The pollution source originates in British Columbia where the former Cominco Corporation, now Teck, discharges waste products from their smelter into the Columbia River. “There is still permitted outfalls and treated outfalls into the river, permitted by the B.C. government, so they are still dumping,” Bailey explained, “just not permitted to dump 360 metric tons of slag a day as it once was. That’s just half of it. There was also many hundreds of thousands of tons of liquid effluent and contaminants like mercury and cadmium, very toxic contaminants, which were put in the river for decades.” It’s this past legacy that is the reason for the current study.

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“This is an action that should have been done many years ago and it’s only through continued consistent efforts of our staff persons who would not give up and hold accountable the company which is responsible for the pollution in Lake Roosevelt and the Columbia River. We sincerely believe that Cominco is responsible for what needs to be done in order to clean up the reservoir behind Grand Coulee because of the years of pollution they have been allowed to dump into the river unchecked,” said Jeanne Jerred, chair of the Colville Confederated Tribes.

“Our staff has been monitoring that body of water for years. They knew what was being impacted and they’ve been monitoring continuously as they were trying to get the attention of the congressional people and the EPA and other entities necessary to help make this again what it was – a clean river.”

Bailey explained the human health risk assessment is a “tried and true conventional survey. It’s a nutritional survey to find out what people are eating within a 24-hour period and then we will be doing a resource use survey to see what other sorts of resources, rather than just nutritional things, people are using.”

The precise survey is under development at present and it will likely be September before people will be contacted. It’s anticipated that 12 to 15 months will be required to complete the survey.

“We’re going to try to survey people five different times in different seasons and conditions so we can get an idea of what people are doing at different times of the year. Our goal is to survey the same people each time,” Bailey said.

“We’re really glad to get this survey off the ground. The remedial investigation has just been dragging along. We petitioned the EPA back in 1999 to do an assessment here. They started on their own and then a deal was negotiated with Teck and since that deal in June of 2006 there has not been any sampling that’s occurred by Teck yet. So it’s been very disappointing, what they’ve produced, and we just haven’t gone that far. I feel like we’re still at the very beginning of answering a lot of questions. It’s very frustrating that it’s taken this long.”