A U.S. District Court is holding a British Columbia, Canada, mining company liable for cleanup costs under the Superfund law for polluting the Columbia River, which borders the Colville Indian Reservation—the first time that a foreign company has been subjected to the U.S. law.
The Canada-based Teck Metals Ltd. had admitted culpability for the pollution in October but had argued that it did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Superfund law because it was not a U.S. company. The case could have implications for businesses operating on both the U.S. and Canadian sides of the border, the Globe and Mail reported.
“Teck knew its disposal of hazardous waste into the river was likely to cause harm,” wrote U.S. District Judge Lonny Suko in the decision. “It was told by the Canadian government that its slag was toxic to fish and leached hazardous metals.”
The Federated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, which first brought suit against Teck in 2006, expressed satisfaction with the December 14 ruling.
“Today’s court ruling has great meaning for our tribes,” said Colville Tribal Chairman John Sirois in a statement. “This river is the heart of our people. It has always been and will always be our homeland, and damages to our natural resources must be addressed.”
Teck Metals operates a massive lead and zinc smelter about 10 miles from the U.S. border in Trail, British Columbia. The company has routinely dumped smelter residues into the Columbia River, which flows through Washington and into Lake Roosevelt, forming the eastern and southern borders of the Colville Reservation. Suko found Teck Metals liable under the Comprehensive, Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA, the formal name for the Superfund law), dismissing arguments from Teck that such a move interferes with Canadian and provincial sovereignty, according to the Spokesman-Review.
Between 1930 and 1995, the tribes’ media release said, the company had discharged at least 9.97 million tons of slag, including lead, zinc, mercury, cadmium, copper and arsenic, into the Columbia River. Suko also determined that Teck knew this was toxic to fish and that it leached hazardous metals. Through CERCLA, Teck is liable to the tribes and the State of Washington in any subsequent action to recover past or future response costs, essentially giving the EPA the power to force Teck to pay for clean-up.
The original lawsuit had been filed in 2004 by the State of Washington, and the Colville Tribes joined it as a plaintiff the following year. The past seven years of litigation led to this ruling. Teck can appeal the ruling, but state officials hope that Teck will instead spend its resources on actually cleaning up the pollution, according to the Spokesman Review. Teck is deciding whether to appeal, claiming that its research shows minimal environmental damage. However they did admit to being responsible for polluting.
No decision on the extent of cleanup or the cost can be made till studies are finished, though estimates run as high as $1 billion.