In 2008, along with the non-profit group Citizens for a Clean Columbia (CCC), I began reaching out to past and present residents of Northport, WA. After a year of researching EPA, Ecology, DOH, and ATSDR studies conducted in the area I discovered information so unthinkable I really didn’t believe it to be true at first. The studies of the agencies, mentioned above, were of interest to me because they were in regards to the century of heavy metal toxins Teck Cominco had been dumping into the river and into our air. Teck Cominco, now Teck Resources, is a Canadian lead and zinc smelter located 7 miles from Northport, 3 miles upriver. The slag and air emissions they had been sending our way are the by products of the process they use to smelter the ores. They contain heavy metal toxins such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury, just to name a few.
What I discovered in these US agency investigations and reports is that since 1940 thru 1997 Teck Resources dumped an estimated 9.8 million tons of slag directly into the Columbia River. This is the equivalence of a dump truck emptying 19 tons every hour for 60 years. 19 tons of poison AN HOUR was dumped into the Columbia River that was headed right down to Northport, and other small communities along the Columbia.
Do you know what else I discovered in the US agencies investigations and reports? It was just as, if not more, alarming than what I discovered Teck had been doing. The EPA, Ecology, DOH, and ATSDR had discovered the dangers the accumulated toxins posed to residents in the area. However, they concluded in their findings that more information would be needed for further research, but that residents were “most likely” not in any immediate danger. This investigation began in the late 1980’s and thru the 1997. Never once did any of the Government Agencies warn, or even inform, anyone living in Northport or any of the small communities that could be impacted. Correction, the residents that had already been impacted.
The DOH and the ATSDR did a human health assessment in 1994 on a small percentage of residents, because at a town meeting the residents of Northport demanded they look into the many health clusters found in many of the residents. They took the blood of approx.. 10 children in Northport. They tested only for lead. They then spoke to the many residents suffering with Inflammatory Bowl Disease, Multiple Scoliosis, Parkinson’s disease, Brain tumors, Stomach, Kidney, Pancreatic cancer and lymphoma. The ATSDR concluded that, although the amount of illnesses found was uncommon, further investigation needed to be done. No further investigation was ever done.
Fast forward to 2008. 14 years had gone by. Many of the above mentioned residents suffering from these illnesses had passed away, or were living with their debilitating disease the best they could. But now they were watching their children and grandchildren being diagnosed with the same illnesses.
My Father had grown up in Northport, along with his siblings and parents. They all suffer from one of the illnesses mentioned above.
The Government Agencies we count on to protect us, and defend us, let us down. They looked the other way as Teck was allowed to dump 9.8 million tons of heavy metal toxins/poisons into our water and air. And even worse, when they were backed into a corner to conduct studies on the impact the toxins had on our environment and health they looked away again. How many lives could have been saved?
Not enough, according to Teck. An internal memo circulated at the Teck location stated that the impact the toxins were posing to Northport residents was not something to worry about since the town, with a population of 375, did not have a significant amount of people to bother with. These 375 fathers, mothers, grandparents, children, sisters, and brothers…they were just not significant enough. The friends and family I have lost to these diseases are significant, I promise you that. The friends and family I continue to see suffer with these diseases; giving them basically no quality of life, they are significant.
So this is what led me to reach out to the CCC and conduct a residential health survey on my own. From 2008-2009 I collected 321 questionnaires from past and present Northport residents. The results of the questionnaires showed that over two generations of residents of a town with a population of 375 people each generation 54 respondents had Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn’s Disease (a very rare disease), 65 respondents had one of the cancers mentioned above, 23 respondents had brain aneurisms/tumors, 8 respondents had pulmonary embolism, 9 respondents had MS, and 13 respondents had Parkinson’s disease. These are just some of the health issues that were discovered. This may seem like a somewhat small amount. But in a population of 375 people these disease rates are all considered health clusters by the scientific community. Meaning their exposure to some environmental factor(s) were most likely the trigger of these diseases.
Since this health study was done by residents, and not by the EPA, Ecology, DOH and the ATSDR, they had no interest in the results. Luckily, the results of the survey caught the attention of Dr. Korzenik, a physician and researcher from the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). He agreed to bring his assistants up to Northport, and with the help of MGH, and Harvard University, he conducted his own study on his specialty, Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease. It bares mentioning he has done countless of these studies over the years. After months and months of walking door to door, calling, and emailing residents to complete his survey he was ready to publish his results. He discovered that the health cluster of residents with Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease found in Northport, WA was the biggest he had ever seen. It was 11.5 to 15% higher then would be expected. He also believed this could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to study these diseases that currently have no cure, and are very rare and very misunderstood.
Dr. Korzenik and I shared the same hope. That once his study was published in a scientific journal we would get the attention needed to hold Teck responsible and utilize the suffering residents of Northport, who were more than willing, to participate in an epidemiological study on them and the area. Which would possibly lead to information that could help cure, or at least prevent, people from getting Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease in the future. We also hoped the attention of that study would attract the attention of specialists in Multiple Scoliosis, Parkinson’s, specific Cancers, etc. This little town, that had suffered over three generations was willing to let themselves be poked and prodded in the hopes to save future generations from suffering the pain and anguish they had lived with. They didn’t want money, they didn’t want the smelter to be shut down, they just wanted to help. And they wanted their Government Agencies to help them, in forcing the smelter to reduce their toxic releases to the levels their permits allowed.
As Dr. Korzenik worked on his study, and was shopping it around for publication, an excellent law firm from Seattle contacted me. They wanted all my research and I happily sent it on to then, along with the smoking guns…the US Agencies own published reports.
The law firm believed that, along with the actual evidence, provided by Tack because of the Freedom of Information Act, the US Agencies lack of investigating, and the results and publication of Dr. Korzenik’s study these long suffering residents had a real shot at bringing a lawsuit against the multi million dollar smelter. Most the residents were not that interested to join the class action suit. They believed that no amount of money they were awarded would bring back their loved ones or the years their poor health had stole from them. Also, they told me again and again…you don’t stand a chance. They told me Teck is a Canadian company the US does not want to get into a cross border litigation with, and their pockets are deep. They had been fighting this fight for decades. Since the first Northport farmers sued Teck in 1933 for their air emissions killing their livestock and crops, to the groups of residents who continued the fight since. My Grandparents were a part of the CCC, and apart of that fight. My Grandpa succumbed to Leukemia and my Grandma passed away because of Parkinson’s.
But these excellent lawyers believed in the case. I felt this time could be different. The lawyer’s initial filing was accepted by the Judge. Teck, of course, filed for the case to be dismissed. Yet, another victory for us! The Judge denied their request to dismiss the case, and said they would stand trial. This finally happened in January of 2015. 7 years after I began this journey, and 101 years after the smelter began using the Columbia River as their personal toxic dumping ground, and sending their toxic air emissions down wind to settle into the valley. Not only was the toxins inhaled, the particulate matter (toxins) in the air emissions would fall to the ground, on surfaces, skin, gardens, crops, etc. The residents of Northport could literally not hide from heavy metal toxins pouring down on them. Not only because the toxins were inescapable, but they were never made aware of them, never given the chance to even protect themselves.
I breathed a sigh of relief. We were getting closer than we had ever gotten. However, in May of 2015 I received a call from our lawyer. Dr. Korzenik’s compelling, and undeniably groundbreaking research paper had been suddenly denied publication in any scientific journal. Without this study being published by the scientific community they could not go forward with the lawsuit. And although Dr. Korzenik is still actively trying to get the study acknowledged in the scientific community, the law firm had no choice but to withdrawal the civil suit and let Teck walk again. The lawyers themselves indicated to me that it was very probable Teck played a role in getting the planned publication of the study squashed.
So after all the work of countless people it seems Teck wins again, for now. I did reach out to Teck and asked, since they had openly admitted in court, that they did in fact pollute the river as was reported, if they would consider funding annual check-ups, blood tests, and hair samples to monitor the heavy metal build up in residents, and also to provide proactive exams to detect the diseases found in the area in residents. They declined, probably because they still refuse to admit there is any connection between the toxins they admit to dumping by the truckload for over 100 years and the health issues found in the residents of Northport. Did I mention all the illnesses found in clusters in the residents have all been scientifically linked to chronic exposure to the heavy metal toxins Teck has been dumping?
Please feel free to email me with any questions or ideas.
Thank you for taking the time to read this!