Upper Columbia River Lake Roosevelt Site
The upper Columbia River
The Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) Toxics Cleanup Program is deeply invested in investigating and cleaning up the upper Columbia River Valley and Lake Roosevelt communities. Our efforts cross several scientific and legal endeavors, all with the intent of improving health protection and repairing the environment. Northeast Washington has a proud history of metal ore smelting, but that history also left a complex legacy of contamination.
Tribal, federal, and local government organizations are addressing long-term concerns over contamination. Ecology represents Washington in working with these organizations on cleanup and community outreach. Washington is also a co-litigant in a federal court case against Teck Resources, Ltd., seeking to affirm liable party responsibility for the metals cleanup and natural resource loss compensation.
Historical photo of the metals smelter in Trail, B.C.
The upper Columbia River/Lake Roosevelt site extends over 150 miles from the U.S.-Canadian border near Northport, Washington, to the Grand Coulee Dam. The site lies within parts of Lincoln, Ferry, and Stevens counties.
Smokestack emissions into the atmosphere, as well as direct waste releases into the Columbia River of slag and liquid effluents from metal smelting, contaminated the river and broad upland areas near the Canadian-U.S. border. Slag is an angular, somewhat glassy, industrial waste containing hazardous substances including zinc, lead, copper, and other metals.
The Teck smelter, located less than 10 miles across the border in Trail, British Columbia (B.C.), on the banks of the Columbia River, is the main contaminant source. Smaller contributions near Northport, Washington, also came from the now-closed Le Roi smelter.
Sampling topsoil in residential yards in 2014
Unnaturally high levels of metals, including lead
, are found in topsoil in the upper Columbia River Valley near the U.S.-Canadian border. When present, the concentrations of metals commonly observed in the upper Columbia River Valley can be a health concern. Health risks can be greatly reduced if managed properly.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is directing topsoil testing efforts and cleaning up residential properties most at risk in the upper Columbia River Valley.
The EPA is leading several studies to assess human and ecological risks
and to understand the extent of contamination in the river and reservoir. This has included recreational beach areas, water quality, sediments, and fish and other aquatic life.
Those studies demonstrate, with specific exceptions, that the beaches and water are safe for recreation on the river and in the National Recreation Area.
Several species of game fish have been tested, and some species have unnaturally high concentrations of certain contaminants.
Sturgeon study along the upper Columbia River.
Two main investigations focusing on the upper Columbia River site are led by separate entities, each with specific objectives. The investigations are a Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study (RI/FS) and a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA).
The EPA is overseeing the RI/FS. The purpose of the RI is to identify the contaminants, their locations, and human health and environmental risks. The FS will be developed later and offer cleanup options to address contaminants found during the RI.
In 2006, Teck American, Inc., entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the EPA to fund the RI/FS from the U.S.-Canadian border to Grand Coulee Dam and in surrounding areas. Teck does most the field investigation work with oversight by the EPA. The EPA is responsible for assessing human health risk.
Washington State (represented by Ecology), Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, U.S. Department of Interior, and Spokane Tribe of Indians, collectively referred to as the Upper Columbia River Trustee Council (the Trustees), are conducting the NRDA. The purpose of NRDA is to determine past and ongoing natural resource injuries with the goal of restoring or replacing the injured resources for the public.
The Trustees are currently assessing injuries and then damages related to the public’s loss of natural resources. The goal is to achieve compensation with parties responsible for the contamination to create a restoration fund for injured natural resources.
Ecology has completed six independent studies evaluating smelter contamination in northeastern Washington that have guided or informed EPA and NRDA studies.
In 2007, Ecology sampled sediments in Lake Roosevelt and the upper Columbia River, upstream of the Highway 395 Bridge near Kettle Falls. Results affirmed widespread fine sediment and industrial slag contamination extending to near the international border.
In 2010 and 2011, Ecology studied northeast Washington freshwater sediments and fish to evaluate area metals and document natural background conditions. Sediments were tested from 14 lakes and a stream, and fish tissues were collected from 13 lakes and a stream. The results identified contamination in the area of the upper Columbia River Valley.
In 2012, Ecology gathered sediment samples from 10 lakes and wetlands along the upper Columbia River Valley to assess metals concentrations. Samples were analyzed for a number of heavy metals associated with smelter stack emissions. Smelter-caused metals enrichment was documented in several lakes along the Valley.
Ecology evaluated native topsoil in non-residential, upland areas within two miles of the U.S.-Canadian border in fall 2012. The sampling area covered about 15 to 20 square miles, reaching as far as 4 miles east and 6.5 miles west of the Columbia River in Stevens County. Over 120 soil samples were tested for various metals, including lead, arsenic, zinc, cadmium and mercury. The study definitively established the presence of high metals concentrations in area topsoil, leading to the follow-on studies by the EPA that have resulted in residential yard cleanups now underway.
Also in 2012, Ecology issued an independent evaluation of sediment toxicity testing the EPA did in 2005. EPA’s sampling documented major slag accumulation and metal contamination areas, particularly in the upper-most portions of Lake Roosevelt and the riverine reaches near the U.S.-Canadian border. Ecology’s analysis affirmed that sediments in the upper Columbia River are primarily contaminated by smelter-related metals in slag. Adverse effects on survival, growth, biomass, and reproduction of aquatic invertebrates are associated with exposure to UCR sediments. The work also identified data gaps and developed methods for advancing further toxicity testing and assessment.
Ecology also sponsored a study with U.S. Geological Survey scientists to evaluate the effects of metals-contaminated sediments on benthic invertebrates in the river using five sampling locations. Benthic invertebrates, meaning they do not have backbones, live in and on the bottom of water bodies and are an important food source in aquatic environments. Two types, amphipods and midges, were assessed in this study. These aquatic creatures had toxic responses to metals, particularly copper, in slag-impacted sediments.
Findings from the Ecology studies confirmed elevated levels of metals in topsoil and sediments in parts of the upper Columbia River Valley and nearby lakes and wetlands. The studies also traced most of these metals to past smelter emissions in Trail, B.C.
Granulated slag on Black Sand Beach before cleanup
Black Sand Beach
is next to state-owned public land along the upper Columbia River about 3 miles south of the U.S.-Canadian border and about 7-8 miles north of Northport, Washington.
Prior to cleanup, the beach sand was granulated slag that settled there over many decades of discharges into the river from the Teck smelter in Trail, B.C. Ecology concluded that removing slag from Black Sand Beach would get the waste out of the river, protect the ecological environment, the health of the river, and benefit recreationalists.
In 2010, under a voluntary agreement between Ecology and Teck, contractors removed about 9,100 tons (6,300 cubic yards) of sand contaminated with granulated slag from the beach. Clean sand and gravel was used to establish the recreational beach, and the slag was hauled to Teck’s recycling facility near Waneta, B.C.
The public provided important input during the project that helped guide several technical decisions affecting the cleanup. The contractor hired local companies for about 50 percent of the project work, bringing positive economic impact to the community.
RELATED CLEANUP SITES
View Electronic Documents
Site Summary Report
Facility Site ID:
Ecology's Dirt Alert website
EPA's Upper Columbia River website
Cleanup Site ID:
update, Stevens County
Public Involvement Coordinator
Laura Buelow, EPA
Eastern Regional Office
N 4601 Monroe St
Northport Town Hall
315 Summit St.
Colville Public Library
195 South Oak Street
Inchelium Tribal Resource Center
12 Community Loop
Office of Environmental Trust
Bldg. #2, Colville Confederated Tribes, 1 Colville
Grand Coulee Library
225 Federal Street
Grand Coulee, 99133
Spokane Tribe Department of Natural Resources
6290 D Ford-Wellpinit Road
Spokane Downtown Library
906 W. Main