“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.
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.”
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.