The Confederated Tribes and Bands of Yakama Nation reached a mutual agreement with two federal agencies that will allow the tribe to provide essential feedback for cleanup at a Columbia River Superfund site.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency and Yakama Nation signed a memorandum of understanding over the summer that grants the confederated tribes access to documents at a government level regarding cleanup at Bradford Island. The MOU also allows Yakama Nation to be present for government-to-government meetings and provide comments on the Corps’ plans. This is the first time federal agencies have signed such an agreement with a tribal nation for land that is owned or leased by the federal government.
Rose Longoria, Yakama Nation’s regional Superfund project manager, said the tribes have been heavily involved in seeking solutions and to begin cleanup in the area for nearly 20 years. The location is important to many tribes in the region, including the Yakama Nation. The Yakama people inhabited the area and harvested salmon and other fish from the Columbia River.
Bradford Island, located near Cascade Locks, Oregon, was used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a dumping site for electrical equipment in the 1930s during the construction of the Bonneville Dam. That dumping continued into the 1980s and resulted in highly toxic chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls, known as PCBs, contaminating the island and its surrounding waters.
Longoria said having a memorandum of understanding signed was a relief for the tribes.
“The MOU provides a clear recognition and restoration of Yakama Nation as a fully participating government team member, and that we will be on distribution for all key documents related to the site,” she said. “We always stated that Yakama needed to be part of the government team … we needed to have meaningful technical and policy engagement at the site.”
In March 2022, The EPA named Bradford Island a Superfund site, giving it a top priority for cleanup. The Army Corps is responsible for cleanup at the site. A year after designation, Yakama Nation along with environmental agencies and advocates were frustrated by the lack of urgency from the Army Corps and called on the EPA to step in. In May, Yakama Nation said it planned to sue the Army Corps for not meeting cleanup requirements dictated by the Superfund status.
Longoria said the intent to sue led to the new agreement this summer. Now, she’s hopeful all parties can work together to ramp up the cleanup process, like removing the island’s landfill.
“We don’t necessarily think we need to wait for that to be done,” she said. “The Corps may be able to move aggressively on some upland issues to address those sources of contamination quickly.”
PCBs do not break down easily and can build up in the tissue of fish. Longoria said PCBs in resident fish in the area are the highest recorded in the country. Washington and Oregon health agencies have issued “do not eat resident fish” advisories because of the pollution. Although the Corps has removed contaminated sediment from the river, PCB concentration levels still remain high.
“Our desire is to really understand the full nature and extent of contamination at the site,” Longoria said. “Not only what the source is, where it’s coming from, but where it’s going and where it has gone to.”
A spokesperson from the Army Corps of Engineers said they are “hopeful” the MOU will provide meaningful participation from the tribes but are unsure if it will speed up the cleanup process.
The EPA’s role is to provide oversight that the Army Corps is following Superfund regulations, said Rich Francis, the agency’s Superfund project manager for the site.
He said upcoming work will involve thorough investigations near Bradford Island, as well as Cascade Island and Eagle Creek.
“Thankfully because we have the MOU signed and we have the parties working together, it’s no longer going to be just the Army Corps deciding things unilaterally,” he said.
Before cleanup can get started, the agencies will need to sign a federal facilities agreement that allows the EPA to enforce the cleanup guidelines. Mednick said it could be weeks to months before that gets finalized.
Longoria said Yakama Nation intends to use the MOU to its full extent. If the Army does not follow through with the agreement, she said Yakama Nation could consider legal actions.