Watershed Heroes 2013

Confederated Tribes

of the Colville Reservation

The Columbia River is the ancestral homeland of the Colville people.  The Colville Tribes filed suit against Teck Metals, LTD, seeking to hold the Canadian company accountable for contaminating the Columbia River.

In 2012 Teck finally admitted that its Trail BC smelter disposed of millions of tons of slag (smelting waste) and other hazardous waste — including mercury, cadmium, zinc, copper, arsenic and lead — into the Columbia River and Lake Roosevelt.  A recent decision issued on December 14, 2012, found Teck liable under Superfund law (CERCLA) for its actions. 

As noted by Tribal Chairman John Sirois, “It’s time for Teck to finally be held accountable for its actions.  We are hopeful this decision will benefit future generations — not just Tribal members but everyone who uses the Columbia River.  It will present a clearer path for the United States to deal with the remediation of the Columbia River under U.S. law and the Tribes, as a sovereign entity, will participate in the process to thoroughly investigate and clean up the river system.”


  1. -  Indian Country.  Watershed Heroes:  Colville Confederated Tribes win Sierra Club award for battling British Columbia smelter

  2. -  Colville Tribes win long-running environmental lawsuit against Teck Metals

  3. -  Wall Street Journal.  New Twist in Pollution Case

  4. -  New York Times.  Pollution Dispute in Northwest Straddles the Border

  5. -  Colville Tribes’ home page

Awards Ceremony

(Introducing the Watershed Hero Award

- John Osborn MD)

Sierra Club Upper Columbia River Group gives an award each year to an individual or entity that has made a substantial contribution to protecting and restoring the waters and wildlife of the Inland Northwest.  Our watershed heroes have taken courageous action or otherwise shown exemplary leadership in stepping forward and speaking out on behalf of that part of our world that cannot speak for itself.

Our past heroes have included

Spokane City Councilwoman Cherie Rodgers, who valiantly challenged the Burlington Northern fuel depot

longtime environmental advocates Buell and Donna Hollister and Jane Cunningham and Julian Powers,

the Aquifer Godfathers, Ken Lustig and Stan Miller,

Dr. Richard Rivers, scientist and passionate conservation advocate

And, last year, Deb Abrahamson, founder of SHAWL Society, dedicated to education about and cleanup of uranium mining pollution on the Spokane Tribe Reservation. 

Finally, we honored our next speaker for her accomplishments while serving as mayor of Spokane.  Mary Verner has graciously agreed to bestow our 2013 Watershed Hero Award.   As you all know, Mary is a woman of extraordinary talents:  scientist, lawyer, diplomat, pilot, and grandmother.   We thank her deeply for joining us tonight.

(Honoring and Celebrating the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation - Mary Verner)

Sierra Club watershed heroes are a diverse group, but they share certain important characteristics. 

•   First, watershed heroes are people of integrity who act out of love and respect for the natural world.

•   Second, watershed heroes have the courage of their convictions and are not afraid to speak up and take action, even in the face of opposition, which often can be fierce.

•   Third, watershed heroes are effective.   They make change happen through strategic thinking and sheer persistence, knowing that what they do is the right thing to do.

All of these elements are true of this year’s recipient of the Sierra Club Watershed Hero Award – the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.  We honor them tonight for their years of work to protect the Upper Columbia River from the 10 million tons of slag and toxic metals dumped into the river over the last century. 

A few facts help illuminate the enormity of the Colville Tribes’ efforts.

•   Between 1930 and 1995, a smelter located in Trail, British Columbia, 10 miles north of the U.S. Canada border, dumped into the Columbia River 400 tons per day – at least 10 million tons total – of waste products  derived from the smelting process.

•   This discharge into the Columbia River included 250,000 tons of zinc and lead.

•   In addition, the smelter (now known as Teck Metals, Inc.) dumped 132,000 tons of hazardous substances, including over 2,000 tons of mercury, cadmium and arsenic.

It comes as no surprise that after being dumped into the Columbia River in B.C., these pollutants, following the laws of gravity and fluid hydraulics, flowed downstream and came to rest on the bed and banks of the Upper Columbia River in the United States.

The bulk of these pollutants remain in the river today, causing tremendous damage both to aquatic ecosystems and human health.

The reason we know these details about the pollution issued by the Teck smelter is the same reason we are here tonight:

•   It is because the Confederated Colville Tribes decided to do something about it.

In the 1990’s, Canada told Teck to stop discharging pollution into the river.

Throughout the 1990’s, the U.S. became aware of the enormity of the problem.

In 2003, the U.S. Environmental Proetction Agency identified Lake Roosevelt as a Superfund site, and entered into an agreement with Teck Metals to study the problem.  EPA made it clear, however, that it would not hold Teck responsible for cleanup.

In 2004, the Tribes decided to wait no longer and filed suit.   Ultimately, the State of Washington also joined the Tribes in prosecuting the suit.

To say that the case of Pakootas v. Teck Cominco is a landmark case would be an understatement.

To get to the merits of the case – cleaning up the river – has required navigating the intricacies of both the Superfund statute and international law. 

Along the way, the Colville Tribes have made legal history.   Important rulings have included that:

A company located in another country cannot deliberately send pollution into the United States and then claim it is out of reach of U.S. pollution laws.

Ultimately, the question is not where the polluter is located, but where the pollution is located.

Last April, the court ruled that Teck could not escape liability by pointing the finger and blaming others for their own actions.

Last September, the case took a giant step forward when Teck admitted that it had knowingly and deliberately discharged 10 million tons of slag and toxic pollution into the Columbia River.  

Then, just two months ago, federal judge Lonnie Suko ruled that Teck Metals qualifies as a polluter under the Superfund law.

Teck has appealed this ruling, so the plaintiffs are not home yet.  But it is a fitting moment to celebrate and honor the extraordinary efforts and leadership of the Colville Tribes to achieve justice

Not only for the Columbia River

Not only for the citizens of the Colville Reservation

But for all citizens, all of us, who enjoy and use and love the Columbia River.

Before giving our award and the floor to Chairman Sirois, Sierra Club has asked that I acknowledge a  few Colville tribal staffpersons and members who have been particularly instrumental in seeking justice in this case.  We recognize that there are many, many individuals who have given blood, sweat and tears to the cause.  Among them we would like to recognize Joe Pakootas, DR Michel, Don Hurst, Gary Passmore, and most especially, Patti Bailey.  

Mr. Chairman, on behalf of Sierra Club Upper Columbia River Group, we thank the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation for its leadership and unflinching dedication to restoration of the health of the Columbia River.    Thank you for accepting our 2013 Watershed Hero award on behalf of the Tribes.