The Environmental Protection Agency said in a report Thursday that toxins remain at levels harmful to people, fish and wildlife throughout the Northwest, despite decades-long cleanups.
The agency said that pollutants such as fire retardants, mercury and compounds related to DDT remain at unacceptable levels in the air, water and soil of the Columbia Basin, which includes most of Oregon, Washington and Idaho, plus small parts of Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and Canada.
Although bald eagles and ospreys have rebounded from the effects of DDT over the past 20 years, mercury and flame retardants are increasing in fish and wildlife, said Elin Miller, the EPA's administrator for the Northwest region.
"We need to up the ante to increase toxic reduction efforts once we understand these sources better," she said in a teleconference from Seattle.
The agency's report is the first of its kind in the nation, and was compiled from existing data over two years in conjunction with state and federal agencies, Indian tribes and environmental groups.
"The Columbia River Basin, one of the world's great river basins, is contaminated with many toxic contaminants, some of which are moving through the food web," the report said. "These toxics in the air, water and soil threaten the health of people, fish, and wildlife inhabiting the Basin."
Hot spots include the Spokane River in Washington state, the Willamette River in Oregon and the Lower Columbia between the two states.
One fire retardant in particular is showing up in increasing amounts in fish, the report said. PBDE - polybrominated diphenyl ether - is found in laptop computers, clothing and furniture, as a result of recommendations by the Consumer Products Safety Commission. A study has found brain damage in mice exposed to PBDEs before they were born.
Though some forms of PBDEs have been phased out by industry, others continue in use. Some states, including Washington, have taken steps to outlaw them once alternatives are found.
The report cited studies of trout in the Spokane River that showed PBDE levels rising from virtually nothing in 1996 to more than 400 parts per billion in 2005.
"We are very concerned about it," said Mary Lou Soscia, EPA Columbia River coordinator. "We don't want it to become the PCB or DDT of the future. If we get this information out, we can figure out how to better understand this chemical."
PCBs are another fire retardant, and have been outlawed since 1970, but continue to leach out of landfills and illegal dumping sites.
The pesticide DDT also was outlawed in 1972, but it remains deposited in soils and finds its way into rivers through erosion, said Miller. Farmers continue to bring it in when communities hold collections of old pesticides.
Mercury is particularly difficult to control, because it comes from burning coal and circulates around the world in the atmosphere. Instruments on top of Mount Bachelor have detected mercury in soot from China. A 2007 survey by EPA and Oregon State University found mercury in every fish and every river sampled in 12 Western states. States regularly advise against eating fish in certain rivers due to mercury contamination.
Miller said the report focused on the four toxins because they pose the greatest threat. EPA will use the report to identify gaps in data on toxic contamination, increase monitoring of pollution, and plot efforts to clean up the watershed.
"The science has been there for a number of years," said Lauren Goldberg, staff attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper in Hood River. "That said, what this report shows is that we need action now, and it demonstrates quite frankly the failures in the past."