Before building dams on the Columbia River, the U.S. guaranteed the tribes of the Pacific Northwest salmon forever. But the system it created to prevent the extinction of salmon has failed, and a way of life is ending.

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with Oregon Public Broadcasting. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

Update: Dec. 15, 2022: This story was updated to include comments from U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.

State and federal lawmakers in the Pacific Northwest, as well as the region’s tribal leaders, are calling for environmental policy changes and increased funding to address toxic contamination in salmon following an investigation by Oregon Public Broadcasting and ProPublica. Salmon is a pillar of tribal diets and culture, often served at ceremonies and largely considered a medicine.

Although tribal members and researchers have been raising concerns about this contamination for decades, federal and state governments have failed to consistently monitor the waters of the Columbia River Basin for pollution in fish. Given the gaps in testing, ProPublica and Oregon Public Broadcasting did their own, revealing levels of contaminants in Columbia River salmon that, when consumed at average tribal rates, would be high enough to put many of the 68,000 tribal members living in the basin at risk of adverse health impacts.

“These deeply troubling results directly endanger people’s health and must lead to change,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wrote in an emailed statement in which he also referenced recent Congressional funding for the Columbia River Basin Restoration Program. “I intend to continue to fight for funding for this and other programs, as well as policy changes, to end this toxic threat to Tribal members from the salmon they count on.”

When pressed for specifics, many of the lawmakers did not offer any. A spokesperson for Wyden said the longtime elected official will be working on the issue with his counterpart Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.

“Our rivers and waterways are the lifeblood of our communities, and if they are filled with toxic chemicals, everyone and everything suffers — these results showing their devastating impact on our salmon confirms that,” Merkley said in an emailed statement. “I will keep pushing to expand and protect the Columbia River Basin Restoration Program I created, and support other changes and funding that will help tackle toxic pollutants.”

Washington’s Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee wrote in an emailed statement that the state “must carry on our work to identify and clean up contaminated sites, find safer alternatives to keep toxics out of products in the first place, and use our regulatory and enforcement authorities to limit the amount of toxics going into the water.”

Tribal members and researchers say the problem requires multiple approaches. They say lawmakers must make sure companies are legally and financially responsible for the pollution they emit, and regulators must enforce stricter water quality standards while fast-tracking industrial cleanups. Right now, when health agencies issue advisories warning people against eating fish from contaminated waters, environmental agencies are not required to act, which can allow the contamination to fester.

“We have fish advisories just about everywhere,” said Laura Klasner Shira, an environmental engineer for Yakama Nation Fisheries. “I can’t think of one that has been lifted.”

Staff with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, a coordination and management agency representing area tribes, said that Wyden and Merkley have been responsive to tribal leaders’ calls for action in the past, conducting listening sessions with tribal members and incorporating tribes’ proposed solutions into legislation. If the lawmakers fail to institute changes that would protect tribal health going forward, the commission plans to quote their own statements to them in response. “I’m looking forward to publishing a letter back to them the next time” a rule or regulation falls short, said Dianne Barton, the group’s water quality coordinator.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., also said that failing to take action in response to the findings could open up the government to legal liability. In the mid-1850s, the United States government signed binding treaties to preserve tribes’ right to fish for salmon as the country overtook millions of acres of tribal land. “This is the federal government’s obligation,” Blumenauer said.

For its investigation, ProPublica and Oregon Public Broadcasting purchased 50 salmon from Native fishers along the Columbia River and paid to have a certified lab test them for 13 metals and two classes of chemicals known to be present in the river. The testing showed concentrations of two chemicals — mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) — that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as Oregon’s and Washington’s health agencies, deem unsafe at the levels consumed by many of the tribal members of tribes living in the basin today.

A spokesperson for Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., said she is considering introducing legislation to address this toxic contamination impacting salmon and other fish in the Columbia.

Additional members of the congressional delegations in Oregon and Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

The federal government has taken modest steps this year to clean up the region. In August, the EPA received $79 million over five years to reduce pollution in the Columbia River after Congress passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. While this is the most money ever dedicated to cleaning up the Columbia, tribal leaders, local legislators and environmental advocates say it is just a fraction of what is needed to truly address pollution in the river.

At the White House Tribal Nations Summit two weeks ago, the federal agency announced proposed revisions to the Clean Water Act that would require tribal health and culture to be incorporated into federal water quality standards. These standards are used to sustain environmental objectives like clean drinking water and fish healthy enough for people to eat.

“The ability to exercise treaty rights to fish is completely dependent upon clean water and healthy ecosystems,” Aja DeCoteau, the executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission wrote in a letter to the EPA last September, when the agency first began engaging with tribes on this potential revision. “EPA must consider their treaty-based obligations.”

Staff with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission said that while the Clean Water Act revisions would be a major step in the right direction, there are still gaps in the regulatory system that enable toxic pollution to continue to be dumped into and spread throughout the river.

For one, reports have found that the Clean Water Act does not sufficiently regulate materials like pesticides and fertilizers that end up on the ground then flow into waterways. This type of pollution, generated by large-scale farming, timber harvesting and other industries, is responsible for a significant share of contamination reaching the Columbia River today.

There are also new chemicals constantly entering the market and ending up in waterways like the Columbia, courtesy of what Barton describes as the reactive nature of the Toxic Substances Control Act. Historically, the law has not required companies to disclose the health impacts of new chemicals.

The general public, as well as tribal members, will have more opportunities to weigh in on the proposed revisions to the Clean Water Act during public meetings in January. Anyone interested in submitting written feedback to the EPA can do so until March 6.

As these processes play out, the results from the testing effort will be front of mind for many, especially those who continue to consume Columbia River salmon. “It’s definitely concerning,” said Jarred-Michael Erickson, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, a group of tribes whose land abuts a section of the Columbia River in northern Washington. “It gives me more fuel to work on these issues.”