The Colville Tribes and the State of Washington have won a significant victory in the pre-trial stage of their suit against mining giant Teck Cominco, Colville Business Council Chairman Michael O. Finley said today.
The tribes and the state are in litigation with Teck Cominco over its role in the pollution of the Upper Columbia and Lake Roosevelt.
The Colville Tribes and Washington contend that Teck’s Trail Smelter, just over the Canadian border in Trail, B.C., dumped toxic pollutants into the river over many decades. In public court documents, Teck has stated that approximately 9.97 million tons of slag were discharged into the Columbia between 1930 and 1995 from its Trail Smelter, but Teck denies that it should be required to pay for cleanup of conditions in the U.S. The “liability phase” of the case is set to go to trial in federal court later this year.
A ruling issued this week by Federal District Judge Lonnie Suko dismissed Teck’s “divisibility defense,” in which it had asked the court to divide liability among a number of yet-to-be-identified polluters of the Upper Columbia River and Lake Roosevelt, leaving it a very small share.
“This ruling was important for the Colville Tribes,” Finley said. “If Teck is found liable for polluting the Columbia River with waste from its Trail Smelter, it will be responsible for paying for all clean up costs and trial will not be consumed with Teck’s attempts to blame others for conditions in the river.”
Under U.S. law, Teck will have the opportunity to seek contribution from other polluters.
“This case has been going on for years,” Doug Seymour, Chairman of the CBC Natural Resources Committee, said today. “The Columbia River has always been central to our tribal way of life, our culture and our survival. All Council members since the beginning have been very supportive of this legal effort, and I want to recognize specifically the tribal leaders who worked hard to forward this litigation — Donald Michel, Joseph Pakootas, Virgil Seymour, and John Stensgar have all been integral in getting this case established and moving forward.”
“I look forward to a cleanup of the river that has been so important to the Colville Tribes for thousands of years, and to righting the environmental wrongs that we have suffered as a nation,” Seymour said.
Finley said the Judge’s ruling was welcomed by the Tribes, and now sets the stage for the liability phase to begin. This first phase of the litigation is scheduled to begin in September.
“We have been involved in this costly case since 2004, and look forward to proving that the Trail Smelter is responsible for the enormous damage done to the river, from the Canadian border to Grand Coulee Dam,” Finley said. “Teck Comico is a huge, multinational corporation that has done everything its attorneys can think of to derail our case. We look forward to having our day in court.”
Judge Suko also made several other rulings in the Tribes’ and the State’s favor, rejecting Teck’s challenges to testimony from their expert witnesses. The law firm of Short, Cressman and Burgess in Seattle has handled the Teck case for the Tribes.