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EPA Releases Columbia River Basin Toxics Reduction Action Plan
Posted on Friday, September 24, 2010 (PST)

A Columbia River Basin Toxics Reduction Action Plan was released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Thursday in Pendleton, Oregon.


The Action Plan is touted as the "next step in the multi-partner/multi-jurisdiction initiative" to reduce the volume of toxic chemicals and metals and emerging contaminants entering the Columbia River Basin. It addresses a variety of pollution sources, from agricultural runoff to personal care products, and from pesticides to pharmaceuticals.


The Action Plan ( follows the 2009 release of the "Columbia River Basin State of the River Report for Toxics."


That report summarizes what currently is known about four main contaminants and the risks they pose to people, fish and wildlife. The report focuses on mercury, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), and its breakdown products, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants.


The report presents preliminary information on the presence of mercury, DDT, PCBs, and PBDEs in juvenile salmon, resident fish (sucker, bass and mountain whitefish), sturgeon, predatory birds (osprey and bald eagles), aquatic mammals (mink and otter), and sediment-dwelling shellfish (Asian clams).


Many other contaminants are found in the basin, including arsenic, dioxins, radionuclides, lead, pesticides, industrial chemicals, and "emerging contaminants" such as pharmaceuticals found in wastewater. And although the State of the River Report did not focus on those contaminants, the action plan includes them in its list of toxics to be reduced in the Columbia River basin.


Since the State of the River report was released, EPA, states, Indian tribes, other federal agencies, agricultural interests, industry and citizens have been involved in the development of the watershed plan to reduce toxic substances in the 260,000 square mile basin.


In addition to measures that would reduce the amount of toxics already in the Columbia River basin, the action plan includes 61 key actions in five initiatives that address public education, a multi-agency research effort and development of a shared data management system.


The action plan identifies two tiers of actions for each initiative: first, coordination efforts and other efforts that are already underway; and second, new efforts needed to reduce toxics in the basin, based on additional resources.


"Any partner in the basin, whether a federal or state agency, tribal government, municipality, regional government, non-profit organization, industry group, or citizen, should be able to look at this action plan and identify one or more recommendations that they could implement given existing resources," according to EPA's action plan. "With additional resources, partners should be able to engage in an increased level of toxic reduction activities across the Columbia River basin."


A press conference was held at the Nixyaawii Governance Center for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, who have for the last several years championed a proposal that would change Oregon's water quality standards by adopting a higher fish consumption rate used to determine the amount of pollutants allowed to be discharged into the state's waterways.


EPA Regional Administrator Dennis McLarren said the fish consumption rate, albeit determined on a state-by-state basis, "could be the centerpiece" of the toxic reduction actions.


In announcing the plan, McLerran was flanked by several other federal, tribal, state and local officials, as well as representatives from environmental groups.


A firm dollar amount was never attached to the plan, although Mary Lou Soscia from EPA in Portland said a figure of $33 million a year has been discussed. The plan is in place, she said, in the event Congress passes and appropriates funding through the Columbia River Restoration Act of 2010.


In 2006, EPA designated the Columbia River Basin as a priority Large Aquatic Ecosystem in the same class as Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico and Puget Sound.


These partner ecosystems each have designated funding sources to protect and restore water quality. Work to reduce toxics in the Columbia River Basin is currently being done through coordination and partnerships without any designated funding sources, with the exception of work done in the estuary through the Lower Columbia River National Estuary Program, funded through the Clean Water Act.


According to the Columbia River Toxics Reduction Working Group -- a collaboration of federal, state, tribal, local, industry and non-profit partners that formed in 2005 -- toxics reduction for the Columbia River basin will "best be accomplished through work efforts achieved through sustainable resources, which requires designated funding."


The action plan as a "first step" was a common theme among speakers at the press conference.


N. Kathryn Brigham, secretary for the Umatilla Tribes whose family has fished on the Columbia River for decades, said the action plan moves the region closer to cleaning up a river that is a source of sustenance and ceremonial needs, commercial enterprises, and religious values for Indian tribes.


"Removing the chemicals will take time. Not in my generation but future generations might be able to drink that water again," Brigham said.


Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Director Dick Pedersen said the goal is to restore and protect the "amazing" basin that is the sanctuary of "natural resources, fish, wildlife, people, thoughts and ideas" as well as the region's "economic engine."


The action plan, Pedersen said, is founded "around people and businesses that will pull together for today and future generations."


Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director for Columbia River Keepers, said it is important that co-managers follow through on the plan and implement changes that will address not only toxics but water temperatures in the basin. At stake, he said, are basic rights to "catch and eat fish, swim in the river, and the tribes' right to take fish."


Phil Cernera from the Natural Resource Damage Assessment Office for the Coeur d'Alene Tribes in Idaho, admittedly a "bit jaded," said he hopes the plan does not end up gathering dust on a shelf.


"The time to be super-proactive is now," Sonora said. "The more aggressive the better. We need to keep up the momentum for the Columbia River Restoration Act in Congress. The tribes were the original environmental protectors and we ask EPA to continue its mission. The plan is a good start and we hope it lays the groundwork for seven generations who can drink the water, play in the water and eat the fish."


The initiatives for the Columbia River Basin Toxics Reduction Action Plan are:

Initiative 1 -- Increase public understanding and political commitment to toxics reduction in the Columbia River Basin.

Initiative 2 -- Increase toxic reduction actions.

Initiative 3 -- Conduct monitoring to identify sources and then work to reduce toxic contamination.

Initiative 4 -- Develop a regional, multi-agency research and monitoring program.

Initiative 5 -- Develop a data management system that will allow the sharing of information on toxics in the Basin.


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