For over 100 years the residents of Northport, a small town in northeast Washington near the Canadian border, have been and continue to be, poisoned by the heavy metal toxins released by Teck Cominco, a smelter in Trail B.C. Canada.
Teck Cominco (now known as Teck) is one of the world’s largest lead and zinc smelting plants in the world. Since 1906 the smelter’s processing of ore concentrates produce lead, zinc, cadmium, sulfuric acid and a number of other products. The waste, or discharge, from this process is released in two ways; water and air.
The solid discharge is known as slag. The slag is a black, glass like material that resembles sand. It is made up of heavy metal toxins such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, manganese; copper, just to name a few. From 1906 – 1996 Teck Cominco disposed of this slag through specially designed pipes that dumped it directly into the Columbia River. Teck Cominco reasoned that due to the velocity of the Columbia River the slag would disperse enough before it would cross the Canadian Border and come to a populated area. Unfortunately Teck Cominco was wrong. The practice of disposing the slag into the river was stopped 1996. Teck Cominco halted this operation because of growing concerns regarding the impact the slag was having on the environment and human health and because they found a more valuable way to dispose of it. They began selling the slag to the concrete industry. I bet the price they pay is nowhere near the price the residents of the town of Northport paid.
Teck Cominco documented dumping up to 450 tons A DAY of slag into the Columbia River from 1906 – 1996. Contrary to Teck’s theory, the slag was not dispersing enough by the time it crossed the border into the United States. It barely began dispersing at all until it was approximately 3 miles downriver, in the United States. It is here the water in the river slows down. Unfortunately the area in which the river first begins to slow, which then creates an environment for the slag to disperse and settle, was through the first populated area it came to, Northport, Washington.
The population of Northport is, and has been, stable at around 310 people in town and approximately 125 living just outside the town limits. It is a rural community that utilizes the river not only for livelihood but for recreation as well. The farmers and ranchers irrigate their crops and water their livestock with the river water; the children grow up learning to water ski and swim in the river, especially in the swimming holes. The swimming holes, or pot holes, are pools of river water that overflow into deep recesses of the land. The recessed area fills up with river water and the water becomes warm due to the heat of the summer sun. 40 years ago these warm pools of water became the perfect place for children to splash, swim and spend a good portion of their summer days in. It also became the perfect place for the slag from the river water to settle to the bottom, sides and around the “swimming hole”. As the children would spend endless summer days enjoying the river and the swimming holes they didn’t know they were slowly being poisoned by the toxins a smelter, three miles upstream, had carelessly released over decades.
Today the children of Northport know not to swim in the river. Their parents have warned them and not only have they heard the stories of the toxins in the river, some of them have witnessed the effects first hand. Watching one or both of their parents suffer from a debilitating auto immune disease and sadly, despite the care their parents took to protect them, some of these children are already suffering from an auto immune disease of their own.
The second route of contamination is from the air. The smelter has two smoke stacks in which the smoke from the smelting process is released. This air is full of particulate matters, which are microscopically small pieces of matter containing heavy metal toxins.
The amount of sulfur dioxide Teck Cominco was releasing in the air reached such a damaging level in 1933 Northport farmers sued Teck (then Trail Smelter) for the damage they had caused on their livestock and crops, which then impacted their annual earnings. The air was so polluted their crops were visibly burned and the pollutants were killing their animals via the food they ate and the inhalation of the air. The burn line on the trees was still visible well into the 1980’s. Journals a family in Northport kept, written by a family member at the time, summarized that the air was so bad barbwire fences were disintegrating, paint on cars was peeling off, and animals were falling over dead. In 1941, after a drawn out process, the International Joint Commission agreed Teck was liable and ordered them to pay the farmers outside of Northport and Marcus, as well as the town of Northport $34,807, 8 years after the lawsuit was filed.
Although Teck drastically decreased the amount of sulfur dioxide released after this, their air emissions today are still full of heavy metal toxins. The toxins, arsenic, cadmium, lead, manganese, copper, etc., are at levels that are way above safety levels but without the sulfur dioxide in the air the pollution is literally invisible. There is no smell or coloration to the air plumes now, and thanks to the new Kivcet smelter Teck installed in 1997, to make air emissions safer for the environment and human health, the particulate matter (toxins) is now smaller than any of the air monitors are able to detect. This is not good news. The air monitors cannot detect them, so no one is tracking the levels of toxins. Also the smaller the particulate matter, the easier it is to be absorbed into skin.
THE SMELTER, THE EPA & THE DOH
Teck Cominco knowingly poisoned over three generations of innocent residents in Northport and other communities along the Upper Columbia River. Not only that but Teck failed to report most of their many, over 89 recorded, spills of various toxins into the river and air. They documented in one record that it would be best not to alert the public of the spill as it was “most likely” not a reason for concern.
Our government agencies, The Department of Health (DOH) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made it possible for Teck to operate any way they wanted, having no consequences for their gross negligence and disregard of our environment and human lives.
The DOH & EPA investigators were encouraged by their superiors not to find any real conclusions when investigating the impacts Teck’s pollution had caused on Northport’s environment and the residents health. If the EPA & DOH had spelled out what all the results clearly show the State of Washington and the United States Government would have had no choice but to file a suit against the Canadian Smelter as well as the Canadian Government. No Country wants to be a part of across border litigation for one reason. If we can sue Canada for destroying United States land and killing American citizens, with pollution that was released on Canadian ground, then Canada, as well as Mexico, could sue the United States for the same thing.
The EPA, in particular the Department of Ecology, has finally began to do the correct research and entered into an agreement with Teck Resources America to start the clean up on some of the beaches in the area. Clean up on the first beach, Black Sand Beach, will begin in fall of 2010. It took Teck since 2006 to even get to the first clean up stage because, as part of their agreement with EPA, they will complete a remedial investigation of their own on the beaches the EPA already did remedial investigations on before cleaning up. Also, as part of the agreement, the Department of Ecology would have to review and approve all work plans that Teck prepared before they could move forward with clean-up. After years of denying work plans prepared by Teck the EPA created a work plan for them. Teck Resources (formerly Teck Cominco) will remove 5,000 cubic yards of slag from Black Sand Beach this fall. The areas the slag is removed from will be filled in with dirt. The slag that has settled to the bottom of the river cannot be removed and will continue to release toxins, cadmium and arsenic in particular, into the water.
The DOH still sits on the sidelines. When they are called out they simply push the blame on a different government agency. When they are petitioned to do actual studies, which conclude the levels of toxins are still above safety levels, they always have the same response; it is beyond their capability to move forward. Apparently they are also not capable of passing along the vital information, regarding the toxin levels, to some agency that is capable of handling it.
The EPA and the State of Washington need to assure that Teck moves forward with all planned remedial investigations and clean ups promised in the agreement. Also, as stated in the agreement, Teck is responsible for the impact their toxins have had on human health, if it is found there was any. The Department of Health refuses to do this, although it is clearly obvious the impact the toxins have had on human health. If the DOH continues to ignore the facts their own research has found on these impacts the people living in Northport and other towns along the upper Columbia River will be forgotten, again.
There is not enough money in the world that could ever be considered a fair settlement for these people. Yet if Teck was to give, or be made to give, each community even a fraction of what they think one of the lives they took is worth, the communities could get much needed things such as a public sewer system, public parks or support for community centers. Teck does not owe any of these residents or communities this, what Teck owes them is something that has no dollar value and which can never be “repaid”.
Teck recently released a statement promising to take every action necessary to clean up what they regret their industrial discharge had done to the environment and upper Columbia River. I hope their future actions speak volumes to the amount of regret they have towards the impacts they have caused on our land and to innocent people’s lives.
- Jamie Paparich