Yakama Nation Sues Army Corps Over Columbia River Cleanup

For decades the Army Corps of Engineers used Bradford Island near the Bonneville Dam as a dumping ground. Toxic chemicals leaked into the Columbia River. The island is also a historic fishing site for the Yakama Nation. | credit: Flickr Creative Commons: A. F. Litt


By Courtney Flatt, NPR

For decades the Army Corps of Engineers used an island near the Bonneville Dam as a dumping ground. Toxic chemicals leaked into the Columbia River. The island is also a historic fishing site for the Yakama Nation.

The tribe is now suing the Corps to recover costs from helping clean up the contamination.

In 2003, the Corps removed electrical equipment and contaminated sediment found at the bottom of the river. In 2007, it dredged the area to remove more contaminated soil.

Tests show toxic materials like PCBs, which were banned in the 1970s, are still found in resident fish – even after the Corps finished cleaning up Bradford Island. The Yakama Nation says the PCB counts in resident fish are higher now than before the cleanup. No one is really sure why, but it’s possibly because of the way the sediment was disturbed.

Rose Longoria, the superfund coordinator with the Yakama Nation, said the tribe was not reimbursed for its efforts to help cleanup the site. The tribe is asking for about $93,000, although that number could change.

“More importantly, we want to make sure that we have a very definitive role in the decision making process so that we can ensure that the cleanup actually is protective not only the resident fish but all the resources in that area,” Longoria said.

The Corps is looking at several options to continue cleaning up the island. A feasibility study is expected to be completed in 2015.

A Corps spokeswoman said she had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment.

PCB map
A map of PCB fish concentrations in Washington.


Longoria said the Bradford Island cleanup is one of Yakama Nation’s top priorities, simply because of the level of contamination in the fish — and high counts of PCBs of other animals in the area, like osprey that eat small-mouth bass in the contaminated area.

Oregon and Washington have issued a do-not-eat fish consumption advisory for resident fish one mile upstream of Bonneville Dam. Migratory fish like salmon are still okay to eat.

“The PCBs in that resident fish tissue are a magnitude higher than PCBs in fish tissue in other locations,” Longoria said. “It’s rather astonishing how contaminated those fish are.”


Tribes partner with OSU to study clam contamination

Swinomish staff and OSU students sample clams on Kukutali Preserve.
Swinomish staff and OSU students sample clams on Kukutali Preserve.


By: Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

Researchers from Oregon State University (OSU) are studying shellfish contamination on the Swinomish reservation and nearby Fidalgo Bay.

Both the Swinomish Tribe and Samish Nation have partnered in the project with OSU’s Superfund Research Program, focusing on clam contamination on tribal lands.

Butter clams were sampled from sites in Fidalgo Bay near an oil refinery, and from the relatively pristine Kukutali Preserve. Kukutali is co-managed by the Swinomish Tribe and the state of Washington.

“We predominantly are looking for chemicals that come from fossil fuels,” said Blair Paulik, OSU Ph.D. candidate. “We were interested in seeing sites that were the extremes within the area. We expect if there’s going to be an area that’s more contaminated it will be near the refinery. We expect Kukutali to be less contaminated.”

The samples are being analyzed in Professor Kim Anderson’s lab at OSU’s department of environmental and molecular toxicology.

Swinomish clam digger Benny James helped the OSU researchers locate butter clams on Kukutali. Butter clams specifically were sampled because they are an important part of the tribe’s traditional diet.

“The information will help us understand how much of these types of chemicals are already in the area, and how much we will have to clean up in the event of an oil or coal dust spill,” said Jamie Donatuto, Swinomish environmental health analyst.

The OSU team also tested a way to measure contamination using passive samplers. At each site where a clam was sampled, the team placed a small membrane in the sediment to soak up the chemicals. The results from the passive samplers will be compared to the data from the clams.

“Down the line, this could be used if you were worried, like the tribe is, about whether or not your seafood is contaminated,” Paulik said. “You could just put out our samplers instead of removing clams from the food source.”

Wash. Officials Say Shellfish Is Safe For China To Import


Ashley Ahearn, Earth Fix

SEATTLE — Washington state officials said Tuesday they found lower contamination levels when they tested geoduck clams than those alleged by China when it said geoduck imported from Puget Sound had high levels of arsenic.

China cited its findings in December when it imposed the largest ban on shellfish imports from Northwest waters — as well as from California and Alaska — in the region’s history.

Chinese officials said they found inorganic arsenic levels of .5 parts per million in the shellfish they tested in October.

But Washington officials’ tests produced different results.

“Only one of the whole samples was above China’s standard of .5 (parts per million) and everything else was below that, so that was good news,” said Dave McBride, who oversaw the testing at the Washington Department of Health.

The Department of Health tested more than 50 geoduck clams from the allegedly contaminated area, analyzing the different body parts of the clams to compare arsenic concentration levels.

The details of the test results are perhaps revealing than the overall “whole sample” figures. The skin of the clams tested by Washington exceeded China’s safe levels of inorganic arsenic by as much as three times, although McBride said that should not be worrisome to China, given how the Chinese consume geoduck clams.

“People generally do not eat the skin and we would advise people, when you eat geoduck, to remove the skin,” he said. “What we think is that, for the vast majority of the public, this is not a health issue at all. Obviously, when we’re talking about a carcinogen there is always the risk for high consumers.”

McBride added that the whole, or averaged samples, for several other clams came close to the .5ppm limit set by the Chinese.

The World Health Organization is said to be considering setting safe levels for inorganic arsenic in food in the .2-.3ppm range in 2014.

The shellfish that tested high for inorganic arsenic in China were harvested from a tract of land managed by the Department of Natural Resources that has since been closed. The tract is within the shadow of a copper smelter that was operated near Tacoma for 100 years.

“Well we know that arsenic levels are elevated in the surface soils in that area,” said Marian Abbett, manager of the Tacoma smelter clean up for the Washington Department of Ecology. Soil samples from the surrounding land show levels of arsenic between 40 and 200ppm, though that number does not directly equate to levels of arsenic that will end up in the water, or in shellfish.

Screen shot 2014-01-06 at 12.16.20 PM
Soil arsenic levels resulting from the historic deposition by the Tacoma smelter
in the vicinity of the geoduck tracts of interest. (Courtesy: ATSDR/DOH)



Inorganic arsenic levels are higher in soils in the area immediately surrounding the smelter, though wind patterns also lead to higher concentrations ending up in soil samples to the northeast of the smelter, where the shellfish were harvested.

“I’d be nervous after a big rainfall event,” said Kathy Cottingham, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Dartmouth College who studies arsenic exposure and human health. “With soils that contaminated you need to worry about the episodic events of a big rainstorm or snowmelt causing pulses into the water.”

The area was closed to all shellfish harvest until 2007, when the Puyallup Tribe petitioned state agencies to reopen the tract for geoduck harvest. At that time the Department of Health conducted tests on geoduck in the area and found levels of .05ppm. That’s an order of magnitude below the amount found by the Chinese in October of 2013 and well within the safety parameters set by the Chinese.

However, state agencies have not tested for inorganic arsenic or other metals in shellfish from the area since it was reopened in 2007.

Arsenic is a carcinogen that has also been associated with long-term respiratory effects, disruption of immune system function, cardiovascular effects, diabetes and neurodevelopmental problems in kids.

“There’s no safe level, but at some point you’ve crossed the threshold to being really dangerous and we don’t quite know where that threshold is at this point,” Cottingham said.

The Food and Drug Administration has delayed setting a safe level for arsenic in food. Washington state does not regularly test for arsenic in shellfish.

McBride said he did not see a need to test the Tacoma site further after his agency’s extensive sampling.

“I think we have a pretty good handle that this area is pretty clean and wouldn’t require further testing,” he said. “The lab results have been sent to (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and NOAA has sent them on to the state department to the Chinese (as of yesterday). We’re waiting to hear if and when the ban might be lifted.”