Toxic Reduction


The Columbia River, and the communities who depend on it, are facing toxic threats from new industrial development, gaps in environmental enforcement, and the legacy of a polluted past. At 1,243 miles long, the Columbia River is the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest, where abundant salmon runs once sustained a thriving Native American population and culture. Today the Columbia River is recognized as one of the most carcinogenic rivers in America where abandoned industrial sites leach pollution into the waters each day and the salmon runs are a fraction of their former glory. Columbia Riverkeeper takes a multimedia approach—from fighting to reduce mercury from air pollution to heavy metals in stormwater—to expose Toxic Hotspots and reduce the threats of toxic pollution.

Aerial view of a pollution plume from a sewage plant pipe extending into the Columbia, directly above a traditional salmon fishing area. CRK is conducting extensive tests on discharges for pharmaceuticals and hormone-changing chemicals.

Toxic Threats: The Columbia River is inundated with toxic threats: heavy metals, such as mercury, chromium, and lead; so-called “legacy pollutants,” such as PCB, DDT, and TCE that are leaching from industrial sites; and emerging pollutants, such as pharmaceuticals and endrocrine disrupting chemicals, the discharge of which are largely unregulated. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report in January 2009 that concluded that the Columbia River exceeds the safe level for PCBs, DDT, mercury, and flame retardants. See The Columbian, “Columbia basin toxins ‘troubling.’” A previous EPA report showed that toxic concentrations in fish are so high in some sections of the Columbia that Native Americans now face a 1 in 50 risk of cancer just from eating Columbia River fish.

Exposing the Problem: CRK’s strives to identify the sources of toxic pollution, expose the problem, and fight for solutions.

Strengthening Permits to Reduce Toxins: A recent CRK study showed that the states of Oregon and Washington were together permitting the legal discharge of over 167 billion gallons of toxic discharges per year from just the 26 largest polluters on the Columbia. These discharges, which represent only a portion of the pollution entering the Columbia, dump over 7.4 millions pounds of toxics ranging from arsenic and cyanide to dioxin and zinc into the Columbia each year. Since that study, CRK has pressured state regulators to reduce the pollution and CRK has brought legal challenges against the most egregious polluters.

Stormwater’s Role: Stormwater is a leading cause of toxic pollution in the Columbia River and waterbodies throughout the United States. Stormwater contributes heavy metals, PCBs, and legacy pollutions such as DDT and DDEs. CRK is fighting for stronger stormwater pollution control laws in Oregon and Washington. Moreover, CRK’s Clean Water Enforcement work strives to bring industrial storm water polluters into compliance with the law.

Advocating for Increased Monitoring: CRK also plays a pivotal role in advocating for increased monitoring to exposing emerging pollutants, such as fire retardants. Click here to learn more about CRK’s efforts to increase toxics monitoring in Oregon and Washington.

Reducing Toxics: CRK’s strategy for reducing toxics in the Columbia addresses legacy, existing and potential sources of toxic pollution. Here are some highlights of CRK’s work:

Legacy Sources: Along with our partners in the Rosemere Neighborhood Association, CRK works extensively on one of the worst existing Toxic Hotspots on the Columbia – the Alcoa aluminum mill. Rosemere serves a predominantly low-income and minority population that is most affected by Alcoa. After years of pressure from CRK and Rosemere, Alcoa is cleaning up highly toxic PCB-contaminated sediment in front of the mill at this moment. However, the fight is far from over. CRK conducted a study on clam tissue just a mile downstream from Alcoa that shows unsafe levels of PCBs in clams. Southeast Asian immigrants harvest the clams, greatly increasing cancer and other health problems. Using the chemical signature of the PCBs, CRK has identified Alcoa as the source of the downstream PCBs, and we are working to force Alcoa to clean up the toxics. For more information on Hanford’s toxic legacy, click here.
Existing Sources: Two hundred miles upstream from Alcoa, an existing coal power plant at Boardman has evaded the Clean Air Act for decades by not installing modern pollution controls. CRK and allies began a strategic grassroots campaign along with a legal action to force Oregon’s worst source of mercury, asthma-causing particulates, and haze to install modern pollution controls. CRK is represented by the environmental law clinic at Lewis and Clark Law School, the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center. To learn more about CRK’s efforts to reduce toxics from existing sources, visit the Clean Water Enforcement and Toxic Hotspots pages. CRK is also member of Oregon’s Fish Consumption Rulemaking Working Group and EPA’s Columbia River Toxics Reduction Work Group.

Threats of New Sources: Our Toxic Hotspots work includes preventing the unprecedented onslaught of dirty energy projects in the Columbia River Estuary, including proposals for new coal-fired powers plants and LNG terminals and pipelines. In 2008, CRK celebrated after defeating the proposed Kalama coal plant. The coal plant would have discharged 8 million gallons of wastewater and the equivalent air pollution of 750,000 cars into the Vancouver, Washington airshed.