Columbia River pollutants at unacceptable levels, EPA says

EPA says Columbia River pollution levels “unacceptable risk to people, fish and wildife-

For those not familiar, the Columbia River is the major river of the Pacific Northwest. It and its tributaries drain almost all of Idaho, and Washington states, and western Montana. . . . much of Oregon and British Columbia too, plus the NW corner of Wyoming and a tiny bit of Nevada (where the mercury pollution from gold mines is tremendous).

Columbia River pollutants at unacceptable levels, EPA says. By Scott Learn, The Oregonian

This is the EPA’s first “state of the river” report. This is quite sobering coming from the Bush EPA. It is not a new problem, however. PCBs and DDT are slowly decreasing. Numerous other pollutants are present at unacceptable levels, but the trend isn’t clear.

A great deal of money has been spent trying to conserve and recover samon and steelheads runs. This pollution makes the faltering effort even more difficult.

Link to the EPA report






  1. Tom Page Avatar
    Tom Page

    It’s curious that this article doesn’t even mention Hanford. One of the ironies of the Columbia River system is that the best spawning habitat on the main river sits smack in the middle of Hanford – one of nastiest places in the whole country.

  2. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Absolutely true, Tom; and as you say, great spawning habitat because it is the last undammed, free-flowing stretch of the main stem of the Columbia.

  3. jdubya Avatar

    Yeah it would be nice to get to blame a nuclear nightmare for the pollution problems of PCB,s, DTT, mercury and the like, but the problem is the same pollutants are turning up in waterways and fish all over the country. As pointed out in the article, the pollution levels seen in the Columbia are not that different from any other large river in the country. Nope, this crap is home grown and from industrial releases, agriculture runoff and air pollution falling silently back to earth. Maybe if we had a functional EPA……

  4. Tom Page Avatar
    Tom Page

    Very true jdubya, but most other large rivers don’t have leaking waste tanks and god knows what else on top of the heavy metals and airborne pollutants.

  5. CleanRiver Avatar

    While Hanford is no Disneyland on the river, its contaminant contributions to river quality are almost nil. EPA, Washington Dept. of Ecology, GSA, Oregon Office of Energy, let alone the Dept. of Energy, agree on this. Each spend significant time and energy ensuring so, sharing split samples of soil, river water, groundwater, atmospheric samplings, vegetation, etc. from both on-site and off-site locations. As much as we love to hate the place, the facts are clear that both human and environmental impacts are negligible. While there is a tremendous amount of redundant agency oversight, it ensures we’re not just being fed a bunch of crap. Having both state and federal agencies agreeing on the quality of the river provides the transparency we need to know the Columbia remains a quality, Class A river. While you may not trust DOE, it’s hard to fathom a united state and federal agency conspiracy. Although, some are that cynical.

  6. Dave Avatar

    While the Hanford area does have it’s problems, I don’t think it’s fair to place all of the blame for the river’s condition on Hanford. After all, the river has pollution even before it reaches the Hanford area.

  7. Salle Avatar

    I used to travel along most of the rivers in the midsection of the continent, I know that there are heavily traveled roads along the majority of the length of every one. Roads leave everything behind all the time because particulate matter is left behind from every vehicle that passes over it.

    I read a lengthy piece, I have a copy somewhere, by an investigative journalist who wrote a chronology on the history of lead in gasoline concluding that from the years of everyone burning leaded gas, the entire planet is coated with a layer of contamination covering the globe. I would imagine, given this were true, that there would be considerable amounts along any major continental thoroughfare that has so much industrial and military traffic as those along major riverways in the country. And then there are all the other contributors, of course. The usual suspects.

  8. kt Avatar


    And I guess these chemicals could be in rain and snow, too – drifting in from the China, the Coast, etc.

    Years ago I remember reading about herbicide drift in the Pacific NW – crops were sprayed 50 miles away, but plants suffered damage (yellowing and other signs) far away.

  9. Ralph Maughan Avatar


    I think the article in the Oregonian and most of the comments make it clear that the problems at Hanford are certainly not responsible for the majority of the river pollution. It is an unquantified percentage, but less than a number of other pollutants.

  10. kt Avatar

    But Ralph, i got to thinking.

    The role of Hanford in flame retardant pollution can not be ruled out – I think they might use a LOT of that kind of chemical in nuke facility structures to keep things from burning when they have their perennial accidents up there.

    I wonder if anyone knows what kind of fire retardants one would try to douse nuclear flare-ups with …

  11. Salle Avatar

    I happened oon some of that nasty red stuff they use on forest fires last summer and it was kind of creepy to see, it was a full year after the fire for which it had been used. Takes a while to go away, if it ever really does.

    I am not sure what they would use for a nuclear facility, maybe that foam stuff? Good question. I do know that fine particulates can travel pretty far in a hurry. I lived in central Wisconsin back when Mt. St Helens blew up and within 20 hours there was a fine silicate dust all over everything. I had to go wash my car off right away but it was like that every morning for days.

    Don’t forget that there isn’t just run-off from ag areas, they do plenty of crop dusting all along the Columbia and the Snake Rivers. It might appear to be all landing on the ground but it moves around in the moving air too. Then there’s all that stuff that comes off all the roadways, the barges that travel along the waterway, and then there are some of those weird elements in the lava that lines the rivers in numerous portions of their routes. Hanford must be a contributor but it isn’t the only one. I think this might be a case of “non-point source” pollution for a good percentage of it, you can’t locate a single point from which its origin can be identified.

    Another consideration would be the mines in the Idaho panhandle,. I worked at the washington Dept. of Ecology for a short time but I was made aware of the terrible PCB situation all over that part of Idaho and eastern Washington. I was present at discussions concerning how to inform the Hmong and other non-English speaking residents about the concept of which parts of fish were safe to consume and what quantities were safe and how to convey that one signs at fishing spots from the Idaho border to the west end of Spokane. And some in King County as well. They claim that the majority of the heavy metals came from the mining district in Idaho. Then there’s that Canadian Mine north of Roosevelt Lake that has been a problem of contributing to the same… Lots of places that the stuff can originate and it all spills into the Columbia…

  12. jdubya Avatar

    See, another reason not to eat fish…..

    that is an amazing “excuse” to quit a show.

  13. Eric T Avatar
    Eric T

    ….great spawning habitat because it is the last undammed, free-flowing stretch of the main stem of the Columbia.

    I thought McNary dam was downstream and Priest Rapids dam as well Grand Coulee dam were upstream. That would put the Hanford reach in between and flows subject to flow requirements and manipulation from both up and down river.

  14. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Maybe I should say “undammed.” The flows are subject to releases from the dams upstream.

  15. CleanRiver Avatar

    Actually, the “free flowing” reference regards the fact that you could put a dam at about the location of the Hanford Site. Years ago, a Ben Franklin Dam was proposed, given the drop of the Columbia River – several hundred feet I believe – between Priest Rapids Dam and McNary Dam, but the Feds thought the better of it. Probably good given the groundwater contamination issues associated with Hanford decades ago.

    The free flowing portion of the river – the Hanford Reach – does provide a terrific location for salmon. The redds are counted annually and a lot of research has been done to determine if contaminants seeping into the river impact the salmon. Negative impacts from chromium appear to affect salmon eggs in the embryo stage, but only if they are sitting on top of a contaminant seep, which is highly unlikely. Since the salmon don’t reside in the area very long, impacts to young and adult critters are negligible.

    Years ago, when copious amounts of contaminants entered the river, the story was different. However, today the Reach is a boon to salmon and the fishermen who angle the river.

  16. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    . . . and I think that reach of the river has been withdrawn from future dams too. Am I correct?

  17. CleanRiver Avatar

    Absolutely. Chances for a dam there are nil. And, while some have suggested building a huge reservoir – the Black Rock Reservoir – adjacent to the Columbia River and the Hanford Site, the threat of subsurface leakage from the immense pond and what it could do to remobilizing contaminated groundwater and enhance quick migration to the river is a serious and valid concern. That’s probably the key reason why the reservoir will never be built, even though the need for a huge water resource in the near future is apparent.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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