After report on toxic salmon in Columbia River, Northwest lawmakers call for action

State and federal lawmakers in the Pacific Northwest, as
well as the region’s tribal leaders, are calling for environmental policy
changes and increased funding to address toxic contamination in salmon following an investigation by Oregon Public Broadcasting and
. Salmon is a pillar of tribal diets and culture, often served at
ceremonies and largely considered a medicine.

Although tribal members and researchers have been raising
concerns about this contamination for decades, federal and state governments
have failed to consistently monitor the waters of the Columbia River Basin for
pollution in fish. Given the gaps in testing, ProPublica and Oregon Public
Broadcasting did their own, revealing levels of contaminants in Columbia River
salmon that, when consumed at average tribal rates, would be high enough to put
many of the 68,000 tribal members living in the basin at risk of adverse health

Fishers dipnet for salmon in the Klickitat River at
Lyle Falls in Washington, Aug. 27, 2021. The fishing area is open only to
members of the Yakama Nation and those who fish here say it is the only place
similar to the type of fishing that existed at Celilo Falls on the Columbia
which was flooded when the Dalles Dam was built.

“These deeply troubling results directly endanger
people’s health and must lead to change,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wrote in
an emailed statement in which he also referenced recent Congressional funding
for the Columbia River Basin Restoration Program. “I intend to continue to
fight for funding for this and other programs, as well as policy changes, to
end this toxic threat to Tribal members from the salmon they count on.”

When pressed for specifics, many of the lawmakers did not
offer any. A spokesperson for Wyden said the longtime elected official will be
working on the issue with his counterpart Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who did not
respond to requests for comment. Washington’s Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee wrote
in an emailed statement that the state “must carry on our work to identify
and clean up contaminated sites, find safer alternatives to keep toxics out of
products in the first place, and use our regulatory and enforcement authorities
to limit the amount of toxics going into the water.”

Tribal members and researchers say the problem requires
multiple approaches. They say lawmakers must make sure companies
are legally and financially responsible for the pollution they emit
, and
regulators must enforce stricter water quality standards while fast-tracking
industrial cleanups. Right now, when health agencies issue advisories warning
people against eating fish from contaminated waters, environmental agencies are
not required to act, which can allow the contamination to fester.

“We have fish advisories just about everywhere,”
said Laura Klasner Shira, an environmental engineer for Yakama Nation
Fisheries. “I can’t think of one that has been lifted.”

Staff with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, a coordination
and management agency representing area tribes, said that Wyden and Merkley
have been responsive to tribal leaders’ calls for action in the past,
conducting listening sessions with tribal members and incorporating tribes’
proposed solutions into legislation. If the lawmakers fail to institute changes
that would protect tribal health going forward, the commission plans to quote
their own statements to them in response. “I’m looking forward to
publishing a letter back to them the next time” a rule or regulation falls
short, said Dianne Barton, the group’s water quality coordinator.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., also said that failing to take
action in response to the findings could open up the government to legal
liability. In the mid-1850s, the United States government signed binding
treaties to preserve tribes’ right to fish for salmon as the country overtook
millions of acres of tribal land. “This is the federal government’s
obligation,” Rep. Blumenauer said.

For its investigation, ProPublica and Oregon Public Broadcasting
purchased 50 salmon from Native fishers along the Columbia River and paid to
have a certified lab test them for 13 metals and two classes of chemicals known
to be present in the river. The testing showed concentrations of two chemicals
– mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) – that the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency, as well as Oregon’s and Washington’s health agencies, deem
unsafe at the levels consumed by many of the tribal members of tribes living in
the basin today.

A spokesperson for Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., said she
is considering introducing legislation to address this toxic contamination
impacting salmon and other fish in the Columbia.

Additional members of the congressional delegations in
Oregon and Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

The federal government has taken modest steps this year to
clean up the region. In August, the EPA received $79 million over five years to
reduce pollution in the Columbia River after Congress passed the Bipartisan
Infrastructure Law. While this is the most money ever dedicated to cleaning up
the Columbia, tribal leaders, local legislators and environmental advocates say
it is just a fraction of what is needed to truly address pollution in the

At the White House Tribal Nations Summit two weeks ago, the
federal agency announced proposed revisions to the Clean Water Act that would
require tribal health and culture to be incorporated into federal water quality
standards. These standards are used to sustain environmental objectives like
clean drinking water and fish healthy enough for people to eat.

“The ability to exercise treaty rights to fish is
completely dependent upon clean water and healthy ecosystems,” Aja
DeCoteau, the executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish
Commission wrote in a letter to the EPA last September, when the agency first
began engaging with tribes on this potential revision. “EPA must consider
their treaty-based obligations.”

Staff with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission
said that while the Clean Water Act revisions would be a major step in the
right direction, there are still gaps in the regulatory system that enable
toxic pollution to continue to be dumped into and spread throughout the river.

For one, reports have found that
the Clean Water Act does not sufficiently regulate materials like pesticides
and fertilizers that end up on the ground then flow into waterways. This type
of pollution, generated by large-scale farming, timber harvesting and other
industries, is responsible for a significant share of contamination reaching
the Columbia River today.

There are also new chemicals constantly entering the market
and ending up in waterways like the Columbia, courtesy of what Barton describes
as the reactive nature of the Toxic Substances Control Act. Historically, the
law has not required companies to disclose the health impacts of new chemicals.

The general public, as well as tribal members, will have
more opportunities to weigh in on the proposed revisions to the Clean Water Act
during public
 in January. Anyone interested in submitting written feedback
to the EPA can do so until March 6.

As these processes play out, the results from the testing
effort will be front of mind for many, especially those who continue to consume
Columbia River salmon. “It’s definitely concerning,” said
Jarred-Michael Erickson, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville
Reservation, a group of tribes whose land abuts a section of the Columbia River
in northern Washington. “It gives me more fuel to work on these