Upper Columbia River Lake Roosevelt Site

Click image to enlarge.
Please click on the photo for a larger view

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. The region 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 ensure, as the liable party, they deliver on responsibilities for metals cleanup and natural resource loss compensation.


Historical photo of the metals smelter in Trail, B.C.
Please click on the photo for a larger view


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 Trail 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. Since 1896, Teck Metals Ltd. and its predecessors (Cominco and others) have continuously operated the smelter in Trail. Smaller contributions near Northport, Washington, also came from the long-closed Le Roi smelter.

Sampling topsoil in residential yards in 2014
Please click on the photo for a larger view


Metals in Soil

Unnaturally high levels of metals, including lead and arsenic, 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.

Upper Columbia River & Lake Roosevelt Recreation

The EPA is leading several studies to assess human and ecological risks and to understand the extent of contamination in the river, reservoir, and upland areas. This has included recreational beach areas, water quality, sediments, fish, benthic invertebrates, 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
Please click on the photo for a larger view


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).

Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study

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.
Human Health Risk Assessment

In July 2020, the EPA published their draft Human Health Risk Assessment (HHRA). The HHRA analyzes risks to human health in the upper Columbia River valley from metal smelting pollution released in the Columbia River and to the air.

The HHRA evaluates risks to residents, recreationalists, and workers across the area studied over the past several years. The EPA is expected to use the human health risk assessment and other remedial investigation information to develop a comprehensive cleanup plan proposal to address health risks (possibly within the next 2 to 3 years), and may consider additional early actions in residential areas.

The HHRA follows previous residential soil cleanups of lead and arsenic on 29 properties in the town of Northport and, later, 28 areas across rural, residential properties in the greater Northport area in 2004, 2014, 2016, and 2018. The EPA completed removal actions at 16 additional properties for the town of Northport in 2020.

The HHRA results reaffirm that residents of the greater Northport area remain at risk for lead exposure from soil. Based on existing upland soil data, this continues to be of greatest importance to those living in or frequenting the river valley corridor from generally just upstream of the China Bend area, extending upriver to the international border. This encompasses the area where past residential property cleanups have occurred and areas undergoing sampling. View a map of the areas where soil has been sampled and areas impacted by smelter emissions

Natural Resources Damage Assessment

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.

Contributions from Ecology's Toxics Cleanup Program

Ecology has completed seven 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. 
In 2017, Ecology asked our Air Quality Program specialists to use existing air monitoring data to evaluate conditions in the upper Columbia River valley and assess whether more air monitoring is needed. Based on the assessment, we recommend additional air monitoring in the upper Columbia River valley.

In 2019, Ecology worked with Washington State University to establish natural background metal values that represent upper-percentile thresholds in soils within 11 state-defined watersheds (Water Resource Inventory Areas) for 18 metals and metalloids. Background soil metals analysis is intended to guide the application of environmental regulations in northeast Washington State and offers a framework for possible application in other areas. The geographic boundaries were selected to guide and inform cleanup decisions and other environmental work occurring in the greater Upper Columbia River region.

Overall, 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, April 2010
Please click on the photo for a larger view


Northport Waterfront Project

We are directing and funding an investigation and cleanup of smelter-related metals contamination on Northport’s public waterfront area.

The project area includes all permanently and seasonally exposed areas of the Columbia River bank and shore directly next to the Northport City Park and boat launch, which was cleaned up by BNSF Railway. From the river, this area is between Smelter Rock downstream to the Northport Highway 25 Bridge, and is associated with the historic Le Roi Smelter that was located at and around the City Park. The area remains polluted by smelter wastes that were dumped and dispersed along the shore.

Our goal is to assess options for protecting people and restoring the environment next to the City Park. We look forward to working with local government, businesses, and residents during the investigation and cleanup process to understand your concerns and the community’s vision for the waterfront.

Black Sand Beach Slag Removal and Replacement Project
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.

The upper Columbia River, May 2008
Please click on the photo for a larger view


In 1999, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation (CCT) petitioned the EPA to conduct an assessment of Upper Columbia River contamination. In 2003, the EPA issued Teck a Unilateral Administrative Order requiring Teck to investigate the site and produce a plan to identify ways to investigate the contamination caused by the Trail Smelter. Teck did not comply.

In 2004, the original Plaintiffs in this suit, Joseph Pakootas and Donald R. Michel (collectively Pakootas), filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington under the citizens’ suit provision of the federal Comprehensive Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). CERCLA (often called Superfund) makes certain parties liable for costs and damages associated with releases of hazardous substances. The complaint asked the district court for declaratory and injunctive relief, including enforcing EPA's Order against Teck. Washington State quickly filed a Complaint in Intervention, which was granted. The State and CCT complaints have been amended during the litigation to include NRDA, cost recovery, and air pathway liability.

The case continues to advance along under basically three phases:

  • Liability
  • Response costs
  • NRDA 
The plaintiff parties (Washington and CCT) moved forward on Teck’s CERCLA liability under the framework the Court defined in Pakootas I (that Teck could be held liable under CERCLA for releases of Teck contaminants in the upper Columbia River valley). The district court ultimately held that Teck was liable as a CERCLA “arranger” on December 14, 2012. Extraterritorial arguments, based on the fact that the Trial smelter is outside the U.S., have continued to be rejected by the courts. 
Securing Teck’s U.S. legal liability for legacy pollution caused by air emissions pollution became procedurally stalled in 2016 due to a 9th Circuit decision. The decision was based on a highly nuanced legal interpretation (not a science-based determination) of the definition of "disposal" in CERCLA, which is also referenced in another federal waste environmental law (the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act). 
State and CCT reimbursement of response costs have been awarded or conditionally settled, and in September 2018 the Ninth Circuit Court denied Teck’s appeal, upholding the previous decision that made the company liable for UCR cleanup costs.

The NRDA claim phase has yet to begin.

For the better part of 20 years now, Teck has continued to fight liability and associated obligations at all levels for the century’s worth of industrial wastes Trail historically discharged directly to the Columbia River or from smoke stacks at the smelter complex. The litigation and multiple appeals continue in federal court. 

Learn more about litigation

Ecology and Washington Office of the Attorney General staff are available to assist with your questions or information requests. 
Based on past requests and interest, we have made some of the expert reports generated during the liability litigations available online. You may download a report by clicking its title below.


Map showing site location as Lincoln County, WA SITE INFORMATION


View Electronic Documents

Cleanup Site Details Report

Facility Site ID: # 17013

Ecology's Dirt Alert website

EPA's Upper Columbia River website

Ecology's smelter plume map

Cleanup Site ID: 12125

update, Stevens County

Status: Cleanup Started   Get definitions of Status terminology

John Roland
Site Manager
(509) 329-3581

Charles Gruenenfelder
Site Manager
(509) 329-3439

Erika Beresovoy
Public Involvement Coordinator
(509) 329-3546

Robert Tan, EPA
Project Manager
(206) 553-2580

Document Repositories:

Eastern Regional Office
N 4601 Monroe St
Spokane, 99205-1265

Northport Town Hall
315 Summit St.
Northport, 99114

Colville Public Library
195 South Oak Street
Colville, 99114

Inchelium Tribal Resource Center
12 Community Loop
Inchelium, 99155-0150

Office of Environmental Trust
Bldg. #2, Colville Confederated Tribes, 1 Colville
Nespelem, 99155

Grand Coulee Library
225 Federal Street
Grand Coulee, 99133

Spokane Tribe Department of Natural Resources
6290 D Ford-Wellpinit Road
Wellpinit, 99040

Spokane Downtown Library
906 W. Main
Spokane, 99201