Cleaning up and monitoring toxics in the Columbia River Basin could now be a little easier. Congress recently passed a bill that would authorize the Environmental Protection Agency to start a voluntary grant program for environmental cleanup in the Columbia River system.
The Columbia River Basin, which was named as a “large aquatic ecosystem” in 2006, was the only system of that sort that didn’t receive dedicated funding to reduce toxins. Others included Puget Sound, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes.
Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley praised the Columbia River Restoration Act in an emailed statement.
“Nobody wants to worry that the water they are drinking or fishing in or swimming in is tainted, but 8 million inhabitants of the Columbia River Basin have had their health, safety and environment endangered by toxins in the river. Now Congress is finally doing something about it,” Merkley. said. “This bill will provide a much needed boost to the health and economy of our beloved Columbia River.”
Toxics in the river — like PCBs, mercury and pesticides — can build up in fish. That accumulation can then cause birth defects and other health issues for people who eat a lot of fish.
A number of programs could benefit from grant funding, including hazardous and pharmaceutical collections and better toxics monitoring.
“There is not any long-term monitoring done on most of the mainstem Columbia,” said Debrah Marriott, executive director of the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, which worked to get the bill passed.
She said a lot of the pollution in the Columbia River Basin stems from undefined sources, like stormwater and agricultural runoff, known as nonpoint source pollution. Marriott said a lot of smaller projects are underway in the basin — this grant will help expand them.
“It’s like most things — one or two is good, but when we start accumulating the impact of those, we’ll really start to see some improvements,” Marriott said.
The act had broad support from tribal, environmental and industry groups.
Kristin Meira is the executive director of Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, an industry group that supports navigation, energy and trade. She said the act benefits people, the environment, fish and the economy.
“When you have contaminated materials in the river, it makes it very difficult to maintain berth areas and have cost-effective plans for dredging and other activities in the river,” Meira said.
The act all a part of larger water infrastructure legislation, which also includes a provision to return Kennewick Man to Northwest tribes for a proper burial. The president is expected to sign the act into law.