Toxics Still Persist in the River
Between 1989 and 1995, the Lower Columbia River Bi-State Water Quality Program (the predecessor to the Estuary Partnership) collected data on water quality and toxic contaminants in the lower river and estuary, generating a large dataset on the threats to the health of the river and the organisms that live there.
Since then, the Estuary Partnership has only had funding to monitor sporadically when funds were available. Between 2004 and 2007, monitoring results showed high levels of contaminants such as PCBs, PAHs, DDT, and PBDEs in juvenile salmon tissue, water, and sediment. A study completed with our partners at the USGS in 2012 showed that flame retardants and endocrine disrupting compounds in water, sediment, fish, and osprey eggs increase as you move downstream from Skamania to Longview. They degrade habitat, threaten the survival of ESA listed species, and endanger human health.
There is no long-term monitoring on the mainstem of the Columbia. What monitoring has been done are episodic, onetime studies. So we can’t assess changes over time, determine sources, and target reduction actions. Funds for monitoring are scarce, evaluating toxics and clean up are expensive, and it’s a shared responsibility.
We have learned a lot in the past 20 years, but many questions remain about the sources, distribution, and persistence of toxics in the lower river. Some contaminants such as DDTs persist in the environment even though they were banned decades ago, while contaminants of emerging concern, including flame retardants (PBDEs) and personal care products, pose new threats to human health and fish and wildlife.
There are good things being done. State and municipal governments and Ports have made efforts to reduce toxics in our communities and prevent introduction into the environment, including adopting green office and janitorial supply purchasing, holding pesticide and pharmaceutical collect events, banning certain hazardous chemicals in household items and children’s toys, and improving stormwater treatment methods. Through voluntary efforts, some growers have reduced pesticide application, and third party labeling of agricultural products (such as Salmon-Safe) have increased access to the international market. Private sector companies like Staples and Toyota have implemented green standards throughout their processes.
In May 2015, Senator Merkley and Congressman Blumenauer reintroduced the Columbia River Basin Restoration Act; this bill would authorize Congress to appropriate funds for a voluntary grant program to expand and add to these efforts. This would provide the resources for sustained action to reduce contaminants and evaluate them throughout the Columbia system. We have made progress, we know what we can do, but we need to do much more to ensure clean and healthy ecosystems in the Columbia River Basin.