Why I Fight for Clean Water

By Lauren Goldberg, Staff Attorney

The author’s daughter, Talia Seals, fishing with her grandfather, Bruce Goldberg, on a Columbia River backwater.

The author’s daughter, Talia Seals, fishing with her grandfather, Bruce Goldberg, on a Columbia River backwater.

Fishing bores me, and the very thought of getting in a boat makes me seasick. So why have I spent nine years fighting to make fish in the Columbia River safe to catch and eat? To begin with, family.

First, the feel-good story. I grew up fishing with my dad and grandpa. As cellphones, computers, and video games drove a wedge between generations, fishing brought us together. Find the perfect fishing hole, banter to fill the waiting-for-a-bite void. And, if the stars align, catch a slimy bluegill or bass. In those groggy early morning hours, I not only learned how to fish, I learned about patience and family.

It’s now my five-year-old daughter’s turn to experience the joy and mystery of landing a fish. (“Did sturgeon really live when there were dinosaurs, Mommy?”) Alone time with her dad, as the sun creeps over the horizon. Fishing may not interest me, but I value—and encourage—it nonetheless.

Now for the big C. During my formative years, cancer struck my family. Before Google and Web MD, I looked for answers in books: “Living Downstream: A Scientist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment;” “The Riverkeepers: Two Activists Fight to Reclaim Our Environment as a Basic Human Right;” and “Silent Spring.” By the end of high school, I was convinced that everyone had the right to eat fish without fear of toxic pollution. Warm and fuzzy fishing memories were replaced by stories of people—predominantly people of color and low-income families—robbed of their right to eat otherwise-healthy fish. Outraged and inspired, I was dead-set on fighting the scourge of toxic pollution.

A River in Crisis

Gaze at the Columbia River, and the scenic beauty belies the toxic crisis. Raw science from the Columbia tells the real story: generations of abuse as a pollution dumping ground. The facts will jar you:

  • Columbia River tribal members who eat fish frequently (48 meals per month) throughout their lives may have cancer risks up to 50 times higher than people who eat fish once a month.
  •  More than 100 toxic substances make their way through our wastewater treatment plants into the Columbia River.
  •  High levels of cancer-causing chemicals are found in certain species of fish, such as sturgeon and bass. Rather than clean up the pollution, Oregon and Washington warn people not to eat certain types of fish in specific areas of the Columbia River.
  • Where is all the pollution coming from? Every day, thousands of pipes release pollution into the Columbia and its tributaries. The Columbia River Basin, an area the size of France, accumulates pollution from factories, wastewater treatment plants, agricultural lands, logging, and runoff from industrial sites and city streets. As if this weren’t enough, the Columbia Basin is also home to hundreds of contaminated waste sites—including the the most polluted place in the Western Hemisphere: the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Studies on Columbia River resident fish, otters, bald eagles, and other species reveal the heavy toll of toxic pollution.

Fighting Back

Yes, the system is flawed. Long ago, someone decided that rivers were the easiest place to discard waste. But do not despair. Not so long ago (45 years to be exact), people across the nation came together and convinced lawmakers to restrict pollution: the Clean Water Act was born. Today, groups like Columbia Riverkeeper can sue polluters when the government turns its back on illegal pollution. We can also engage our elected officials and agencies to tell the public’s story—how people rely on the Columbia for drinking water and food—and offer creative solutions to ratchet back pollution.

As part of the Riverkeeper team, I collaborate with impacted communities, Columbia River tribes, and non-profits to restore the public’s right to toxic-free fish. Here’s a snapshot of how we fight back:

  • Advocate for stronger laws. In 2010, Oregon enacted the nation’s most protective limits on toxic pollution. Working with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Riverkeeper helped secure a victory that set national precedent. But clean water laws are under threat by the Trump administration and corporate interests.
  • Take polluters to court. Riverkeeper cracks down on illegal pollution by enforcing the Clean Water Act. This year, we stopped 50,000 pounds of toxic pollution from entering the Columbia.
  • Watchdog permits to pollute. While some pollution is illegal, our government actually allows a stunning amount of pollution through Clean Water Act permits. Riverkeeper’s legal team reviews these permits and advocates for tougher pollution limits.
  • Promote science. Riverkeeper supports studies to understand how toxics are impacting the Columbia’s fish and wildlife.
  • Clean up toxic sites. Riverkeeper works with communities to provide technical and legal assistance on complicated cleanups, like Hanford and shuttered aluminum smelters.

In today’s political climate, where “regulation” is a four-letter word, every child’s health is still Riverkeeper’s North Star. On evenings when I feed my daughters salmon we caught from the Columbia, I’m reminded that the daunting, complicated task of fighting toxic pollution comes back to a simple truth: everyone has the right to eat fish without fear of toxic pollution.

This feature was originally published in
River Currents 2017 Issue 3 Newsletter – Read it Now

In this Issue: Victory Over Millennium Coal; Reflections on the Eagle Creek Fire; Mentoring the Next Generation of Advocates and Scientists; and more.

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