Contact Us


All News Releases By Date


Report: Columbia River Basin faces continued threat from mercury, pesticides, other toxics

Release Date: 01/15/2009
Contact Information: Mary Lou Soscia, EPA/Portland (503) 326-5873 /; Suzanne Skadowski, EPA Public Affairs (206) 553-6689 /

EPA Report seen as “call to action” for governments, tribes and the public

(Seattle, Wash. – January 15, 2009) The first comprehensive look at toxic contamination throughout the Columbia River Basin has been released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Issued today, the Columbia River Basin State of the River Report for Toxics compiles currently available data about four widespread contaminants in the Basin and identifies the risks they pose to people, fish, and wildlife.

The four contaminants are:

  • Mercury
  • Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and its breakdown products
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants.

According to Elin Miller, EPA Regional Administrator in Seattle, a team of more than 20 federal and state agencies, Tribes, local governments and organizations teamed-up to draw this latest portrait of the toxic threats faced by the Columbia River Basin, which drains nearly 260,000 square miles across seven U.S. states and a Canadian province.

“This is troubling news,” said EPA’s Miller. “Today’s Report shows that toxics are found throughout the Basin at levels that could harm people, fish, and wildlife. Federal, tribal, state, and local efforts have reduced levels of some toxics such as PCBs and DDTs, but in many areas, they continue to pose an unacceptable risk. Tackling this problem will require a coordinated effort by all levels of government, Tribes, interest groups and the public.”

While several populations of important Basin species like bald eagles and ospreys have rebounded over the past two decades, some toxics such as mercury and PBDEs are increasing in wildlife and fish. For example, PBDEs showed an almost four-fold increase in some fish species in the Spokane River between 1996 and 2005. In addition, mercury increased in both osprey eggs in the Lower Columbia and in the northern pikeminnow in the Willamette River over the last decade.

Another problem highlighted in the Report is a general lack of monitoring for toxics in many locations, making it difficult to know if toxics are increasing or decreasing over time.

“These information gaps need to be filled by more monitoring and stronger agency coordination so we can better understand the toxic effects on the river ecosystem and agree on priority projects to reduce those toxics,” said Miller.

There are many other contaminants in the Basin, including arsenic, dioxins, radionuclides, pesticides, industrial chemicals, and “emerging contaminants” such as pharmaceuticals. This Report does not characterize those contaminants, but EPA plans to address them in future work.

The Report highlights many important federal, state, tribal and local efforts to reduce toxics already underway in the Basin, including:
  • Cleanup of the Portland Harbor, Hanford, and Lake Roosevelt contamination sites
  • Erosion control in the Yakima Basin to reduce legacy pesticide runoff
  • Pesticide Stewardship Partnerships work in collaboration to reduce pesticide contamination in the Hood River and Walla Walla Basins
  • PCB cleanup at Bonneville Dam and Bradford Island
  • Legacy pesticide collections and pharmaceutical take-back programs.

The report concludes with six broad Toxics Reduction Initiatives intended to improve our understanding about the health of the Basin and strengthen coordination for ongoing and new efforts to reduce toxics. The Initiatives include: expanding existing toxics reduction activities throughout the Basin; identifying and characterizing the sources of toxics to the Basin; and developing a regional, multi-agency long-term monitoring and research program.

Since 2005, EPA has worked collaboratively with the Columbia River Toxics Reduction Working Group, a partnership of more than 20 federal, state, tribal, local, and nonprofit organizations. EPA developed the Report with the support of the Working Group.

According to N. Kathryn Brigham, Chair of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, whose staff contributed to EPA’s Report, "Protecting, restoring and enhancing our first foods have been, and continue to be, one of the tribes’ highest priorities. Toxics in our water and fish are unacceptable.”

“The tribes have always worked together to care for the Columbia River and we’ll need to work together with the Region to resolve this issue now and for our future generations,” said Brigham. “EPA’s report is an important warning about toxics in our water and highlights concerns about their potential impacts.”

This year, EPA and the Working Group will develop a detailed inter-agency toxics reduction plan for the Basin. Citizens, watershed councils, community groups, other entities and governments around the Basin will have an opportunity to learn about and provide input on the development of the plan later this year.

The Columbia River Basin State of the River Report for Toxicscan be viewed at EPA’s Columbia River website: