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 smelting 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 and copper, just to name a few. From 1906 – 1996 Teck disposed of this slag through specially designed pipes that dumped it directly into the Columbia River. Teck reasoned that, due to the velocity of the Columbia River, the slag would dilute enough before it would cross the Canadian Border and come to a populated area. Unfortunately Teck was wrong. The practice of disposing the slag into the river was stopped in 1996. It was estimated at that time that Teck had dumped approximately 9.8 million tons of slag into the river, and concern was growing regarding the impact the slag was having on the environment and human health.
Teck documented dumping up to 450 tons of slag A DAY into the Columbia River from 1906 – 1996. Contrary to Teck’s theory, the slag was not being diluted by the time it crossed the border into the United States. It barely even began dispersing 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 65 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 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, banks, and adjacent area 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 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 matter, 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 to their livestock and crops, greatly impacting their annual earnings. The air was so polluted crops were visibly burned and the pollutants were killing the 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 $34,807.00.
After the lawsuit Teck drastically decreased the amount of sulfur dioxide released in their smoke stacks. However, their air emissions are still full of heavy metal toxins. The toxins, specifically arsenic, cadmium and lead, are at levels that are way above safety levels. According to four air monitoring studies conducted in Northport by the Washington State Department of Ecology (between 1993-1998) the levels of arsenic and cadmium were way above the “ASIL” (Acceptable Source Impact Level), and way higher than the Risk Based Concentration Level. Teck was instructed to install air monitoring in Northport after the final air monitoring report was published by Ecology in 1998. They have yet to install any air monitors.
THE SMELTER, THE EPA & THE CROSS BORDER LITIGATION
Teck 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 recorded 89 spills of various toxins into the river and air. Teck 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. In 1982 Teck accidentally released 6,330 tons of mercury directly into the Columbia River. It took them five weeks to alert American officials.
Our government agencies, specifically 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 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 had spelled out what all the results clearly showed the State of Washington, the EPA, and the United States Government would have had no choice but to file a suit against the Canadian Smelter. No Country wants to be a part of a cross border litigation. 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. So the government agencies created to protect our health and environment, the EPA, Ecology, Department of Health (DOH), and the ATSDR, all turned a blind eye to the problem for decades.
The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation joined the EPA, forcing the EPA’s hand, to conduct site assessments of the area between 1999-2003. The EPA conducted the site assessment and admitted it was so contaminated it fell under CERCLA, or the Superfund guidelines. A remedial investigation and feasibility study would need to be done. Teck refused to cooperate. The EPA issued Teck a Unilateral Administrative Order, demanding they assist with the investigation. Teck ignored the order, and the EPA all but forgot about it. Until two members from the Confederated Tribe filed a civil suit under CERCLA in 2004. This suit demanded that the EPA enforce their order against Teck. After several court battles Teck lost it’s last appeal and was forced to cooperate with the EPA to complete a study of the Upper Columbia River. The first phases of the studies began in 2006. After 9 years of testing, and usually re-testing, the studies are finally progressing.
HEALTH ISSUES LINKED TO EXPOSURE
Residents in Northport conducted their own health survey in 2009. Per the guidelines of the CDC and ATSDR health clusters of brain aneurisms, specific cancers, parkinsons disease, multiple scoliosis, and thyroid diseases were identified, as well as ulcerative colitis and crohn’s disease. The DOH had already discovered the health cluster of ulcerative colitis and crohn’s in the area in 1992. All of these diseases can be triggered by chronic exposure to the heavy metal toxins released by Teck.
A doctor with Massachusetts General Hospital conducted a study of the reported cases of ulcerative colitis and crohn’s in the area. The study concluded that the rates of these diseases were 5 to 11 times higher than expected. Based on these results an additional study is being conducted of the residents with ulcerative colitis and crohn’s, focusing on the amount of accumulated toxins found in their systems and referencing the EPA residential soil study results.
The EPA and the State of Washington needs to assure that Teck moves forward with all planned remedial investigations and clean ups promised under the agreement.
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