A CROSS-BORDER battle of words is slowly brewing over some of the Pacific Northwest's most prized possessions: its natural resources. Politicians from Washington State are fuming over waste-disposal practices employed in British Columbia. Waterways between the two countries are in jeopardy, some Washington State officials allege, from untreated sewage and toxic chemicals dumped by Canadian government agencies and businesses.
The issue has also irritated some in British Columbia, who say politicians south of the border are either unappreciative of the province's efforts to improve waste-treatment practices, or are grandstanding for constituents.
Most irksome to Washingtonians is sewage being dumped by the city of Victoria into the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula. Sounding an alarm to the problem was a letter that United States Rep. Norman Dicks (D) of Washington recently sent to then-British Columbian Premier Bill Vander Zalm about the dumping.
As a follow-up, the Washington Senate last month passed a resolution by a 44-to-4 margin asking the US State Department to take steps to protect waters in Puget Sound and along the state coastline.
One of the resolution's prime sponsors, Seattle Democrat Phil Talmadge, says action was taken to force federal officials to enforce environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act.
As a result of the Dicks letter and the state Senate's action, the Canadian consulate in Seattle acknowledged in a memo to Ottawa the issue is a persistent problem.
"I thought it was a significant issue," says Art Goddard, the political-economic officer at the consulate. Mr. Goddard quickly points out, however, that he believes other issues, such as trade between the two nations, are more important.
Estimates place the daily raw sewage Victoria dumps into the strait at between 15 million and 18 million gallons. That figure, which grows daily as Victoria and the rest of British Columbia grow, worries Washingtonians.
Attention in Washington State has focused on Victoria's sewage, but other practices are potentially more dangerous to the environment and people.
Concern about toxic chemicals floating from Canadian pulp mills down the Columbia River and into eastern Washington prodded the state's Department of Health to issue a warning about eating fish from Lake Roosevelt.
Closer to Puget Sound, sewage and other waste products are dumped into the Fraser River in southwest British Columbia, flowing out of Vancouver and into the Georgia Strait. Few records have been kept to show the dumping's impact on Puget Sound.
"It's difficult to know how much [pollution] comes across the border," says Jerry Boese of the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority. "The changing currents make it difficult to track."
Some in British Columbia feel the issue is overblown.
Dale Wetters, technical adviser for British Columbia's Ministry of the Environment, says the raw sewage flowing out of Victoria and the Fraser River rapidly dissipates and is not a serious threat to the environment.
"It wouldn't seem there's an environmental problem, but more of a public perception problem," Mr. Wetters says. Victoria, he says, is piecing together a waste-management plan. That city hired a US engineering firm last fall to assess its waste-treatment practices. A report is due by the middle of this month.
And he points out that Vancouver is in the middle of a program geared at improving its treatment of waste before releasing it into the Fraser.
But Wetters hints that the US should clean up its own waste-treatment practices before it looks northward.
"Victoria is in a special place," Wetters says, explaining that currents around the city flow directly out to the ocean. If the US wants the Canadian province to improve its waste-treatment practices, it should reevaluate its treatment of water that it sends into closed waters, such as Puget Sound, Wetters says.
"We still have some problems in the sound ... and we're addressing them," Mr. Talmadge concedes. "We're taking the approach that we're neighbors who share a small aquatic fence, and we need to take care of it."