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Science, Law & the Environment Emerging Topics in Environmental Law

Quick hits from the Pacific Northwest: Dams as Greenhouse Gas Sources, Cross-Border Torts, Transboundary CERCLA Trial Coming Up

Posted in Cleanup & Superfund, Climate Change, Emerging Policy, Uncategorized

I’ll admit to taking a bit of time to travel with my family the last couple of weeks, so I have a few items that have accumulated in my notes. More to come when I’m back from a weekend of fishing in Canada:

First, there is an interesting study out of Washington State University that details methane releases from reservoirs during periods of draw-downs. A great summary of the research done by Bridget Deemer and Maria Glavin is over at Science Daily. From a science perspective, this could be a significant contribution to our understanding of sources of greenhouse gases, particularly because methane is about 25 times more effective than CO2 in terms of trapping solar radiation in the atmosphere. From a legal and policy perspective, I could anticipate these emissions becoming relevant in how reservoir drawdown is managed in the future, because the timing and mechanics of the drawdowns influence the rate and volume of methane released. As greenhouse gas emissions become relevant under NEPA and SEPA, I could also see this be a consideration in environmental analyses associated with future dam removal efforts, like the removal of two dams on the Elwha River, or the rather spectacular removal of the Condit Dam on the White Salmon River.

Second, a study out of Harvard Medical School found a cluster of ulcerative colitis in the town of Northport, Washington. This study is relevant to the ongoing legal wranglings involving the Trail Smelter located upwind and across the border in Canada from Northport. Although the researchers have yet to link heavy metal emissions from the Trail Smelter to the cluster of ulcerative colitis identified in Northport, if that link is established, you can bet that litigation will result as residents seek to be compensated for these health issues.

Third, and also related to the Trail Smelter in Canada, the suit brought by the Colville Tribes against the operator of the smelter is scheduled to go to trial next month. This case originally involved a single eight-page complaint by the Colville Tribe bringing a citizen suit under CERCLA seeking to compel the owner of the smelter to comply with a Unilateral Administrative Order issued by EPA to the operator to perform an investigation of contamination in the Columbia River. This case is now eight years old, the docket contains almost 2000 entries, and if it isn’t settled soon, will be one of the most notable CERCLA trials in recent memory in the Pacific Northwest. Stay tuned.