'Living on Earth: Liability Crosses Borders'
The U.S. Supreme Court has let stand a ruling that firms may be held responsible for pollution that drifts across borders .
Indian tribes in Washington State now hope the ruling brings them one step closer to a massive cleanup of the Columbia River near the Canadian border. The black sand on many of the river beaches here isn't natural. It's made up of 'slag,' a metal and glassy waste deposited by the hundreds of thousands of tons by the Teck Cominco lead and zinc smelter a few miles upriver in Canada.
Most of the discharges stopped more than a decade ago, but the Colville and Spokane tribes here have been trying for years to find out the ecological and human health risks of the material.
Don Hurst is a geologist and toxic cleanup manager with the tribes: "What we're looking at here is about 73 percent slag that is sourced from the Teck Cominco smelter.
Contaminants of concern are like lead, arsenic, zinc, copper. The concentrations of arsenic and lead are at about the same levels that have driven emergency cleanups in other locations."
Dissatisfied with the federal government's pursuit of the company to pay for studies and cleanup, the tribes sued under a special citizen provision of the Superfund law. That lead to a major battle over jurisdiction. Teck Cominco argued that as a facility in Canada, it could not be held accountable under U.S. Superfund law. Powerful trade organizations from the National Mining Association to the U.S. and Canadian Chambers of Commerce sided with the company.
Now their worries have been confirmed. The Supreme Court has let stand a 9th Circuit ruling that the metals giant Teck Cominco can be sued in U.S. courts using Superfund law.
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"Living on Earth," an environmental news program is produced by World Media Foundation Inc. and distributed nationwide by PRI.