BONNEVILLE DAM, Ore. — A lone boat fished near Bradford Island, just upstream from Bonneville Dam, on a crisp fall morning full of color and serenity.
The stark words from Lauren Goldberg, legal and program director for Columbia Riverkeeper, were at odds with the picturesque setting.
“It’s America’s next Superfund site you are looking at,” Goldberg said Thursday from the Eagle Creek Campground, with Beacon Rock visible behind Bonneville Dam.
Beneath the Columbia River’s seemingly tranquil waters is mercury, lead and polychlorinated biphenyls, better known as PCBs, a known carcinogen. PCBs were widely used in transformers and other electrical equipment before they were banned 40 years ago.
For the past six years, health officials from Oregon and Washington have told people not to eat certain species of fish caught within 1 mile upriver from Bonneville Dam because of elevated levels of PCBs in fish tissue.
According to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, PCB concentrations in smallmouth bass have been found at 183,140 parts per billion; the “safe” level for human consumption is less than 1 part per billion.
Earlier this month, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Washington State Department of Ecology and Oregon DEQ asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to designate the Bradford Island area as a Superfund site.
That designation is generally for the nation’s most heavily polluted sites. The area near Bradford Island is a historical tribal fishing site that also is used for recreational fishing.
A four-page letter from the tribe and two states said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its contractors disposed of hazardous materials in a landfill on Bradford Island for more than 40 years. The Corps and its contractors also dumped electrical equipment debris into the Columbia River, and the Corps used the island for sandblasting, painting and pistol target practice, the letter said.
The Corps, which owns and operates Bonneville Dam, has led contamination investigation and cleanup since 1997, but the letter said there are “serious concerns” about the agency’s approach. In addition, the Trump administration’s budget for fiscal year 2020 did not request any funds for Bradford Island.
Columbia Riverkeeper is one of nine environmental groups supporting a Superfund listing for Bradford Island, one of three islands used by the Bonneville Dam complex.
“Resident fish caught near the island contain the highest levels of cancer-causing PCBs in the Northwest,” the nine groups said in an Oct. 9 letter. “Despite the significant contamination, the Trump administration recently slashed funding for Bradford Island cleanup. Given the severe and long-running pollution problems caused by the Corps, our organizations support a new approach to Bradford Island cleanup.”
Goldberg said the Corps has not done any cleanup since 2007. Contaminant levels in some fish have increased since then, she said.
“The Corps has not prioritized people’s health,” she said. “They have had decades to clean up some of the most dangerous toxic pollution in the Columbia River.”
Corps owns cleanup
Chris Budai, the Corps’ project manager for the Bradford Island environmental cleanup, said it will be up the EPA to determine if a Superfund listing is warranted. Regardless of the outcome, Budai said her agency is committed to cleaning up decades of contamination.
“The Corps takes full responsibility for the cleanup of this site,” she said. “And we are committed to cleaning up the site.”
Since the last cleanup work was completed in 2007, the Corps has continued to investigate and study the area, in coordination with Washington and Oregon and other organizations through a technical advisory group, Budai said.
“We need to identify the nature and the extent of the contamination,” she said. “We are in the process of investigating that further.”
Budai, when asked why the two states and Yakama Nation were concerned about the Corps’ approach, said it could be due to differing regulations.
“They have a position on some issues, and we have a position,” she said. “Sometimes it’s state versus federal. We are following federal rules and procedures.”
The Corps, she said, is adhering to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, the 1980 Superfund law that provides broad authority for the federal government to respond to hazardous substances that can endanger public health or the environment.
“The process takes time,” she said. “And that whole process is coordinated with others. It’s not just the Corps operating by itself.”
Corps officials confirmed that Trump’s proposed budget contains no money for Bradford Island, but they pointed out that it’s up to Congress to approve a final appropriations bill.
The Corps’ webpage for Bradford Island outlines studies and cleanup work completed, including removing electrical equipment containing PCBs from the Columbia River in 2002 and dredging sediment from about 1 acre of river bottom in 2007. Analysis of river sediment and clam and fish tissue collected four years later indicated that contamination levels were not reduced by dredging.
In September 2013, the Oregon Health Authority and the Washington State Department of Health advised people not to eat any resident fish caught between Bonneville Dam and Ruckel Creek, approximately 1 mile upriver. Resident fish, such as bass, bluegill, carp and sturgeon, remain in one area their entire lives and are repeatedly exposed to contaminants.
“It is especially important for babies, children, women who are pregnant, plan to become pregnant and/or are nursing to follow this advisory,” a flier from the two health agencies says. “Health effects of eating contaminated fish can include lifelong learning problems and cancer.”
The health advisory does not apply to anadromous fish, such as salmon, steelhead, shad and lamprey, that pass through the area on their way to and from the ocean.
Ubaldo Hernandez, community organizer for Columbia Riverkeeper, has talked with people fishing near Bradford Island and provided them with information about the health advisory.
“They’re surprised,” he said. “They don’t know about it. … They think they are eating something nice and clean.”
Hernandez emphasized that the health advisory is only for resident fish above the dam and should not affect Native Americans selling salmon along the Columbia River.
“They don’t want their business to be hurt,” he said. “They’re afraid people are not going to buy from them.”
Budai said there are warning signs posted at boat ramps, tribal fishing areas and other locations used by people fishing in the area. The Corps coordinated with state health officials to develop and post signs, she said, and it intends to post more signs warning people not to eat resident fish.
The Corps completed a study of cleanup options for Bradford Island in 2017 and is working on a similar study for the Columbia River adjacent to the island.
“Cleaning up Bradford Island is the right thing to do,” said Jeff Henon, a public affairs specialist for the Corps. “And the concern that it has taken so long is because we are following a methodical process.”
Goldberg, however, said it’s time for a different agency, the EPA, to take charge of the cleanup and safeguard both the public and environment.
“I think the polluters policing themselves, overseeing the cleanup, is not good for people’s health,” she said.