Pollution Still Impacts Northport Community
BY JAMIE HENNEMAN
From Black Sand to Medical Studies
Although the years of a smelter at Trail, B.C. dumping industrial waste into the Columbia River have ended, the impact to communities like Northport across the border is still being scrutinized.
Teck Resources Ltd., formerly Cominco, is a lead and zinc smelter in the Kootenay region of British Columbia that produces products for export, much of it to the United States. The zinc is used in pharmaceuticals, zinc batteries, hearing aids, as a rust preventive and in renewable energy products. Lead is also exported for the manufacture of lead acid batteries.
The plant has been operating for nearly a century, but past production discharged industrial waste into the Columbia River up until the 1990s.
These discharges, along with particulate matter from the giant smelter, are blamed for recurring health problems for some residents downstream in Northport. One of the areas catching much of the slag discharge was an area referred to as “Black Sand Beach.”
Black Sand Beach Cleaned Up
The beach near Northport, a popular swimming hole for the community, was recently cleaned up by Teck Resources, who spent $1 million to remove the discharge material from the area. The material was reprocessed at the trail plant into ferrous granules that are used in making cement.
“The clean-up was very successful,” said Teck Resources American Vice-President Dave Godlewski. “We have a very positive response from the local community and good cooperation with the Department of Ecology and the Tribes.”
Although efforts to mitigate past damage have been positive, many questions still persist about the smelter’s affects on soil, water, and fish. A 2006 agreement between Teck Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency has created an ongoing EPA study on the Upper Columbia that is being funded by Teck Resources.
The study is wrapping up its second year of sampling, which has included testing 2,300 fish above Grand Coulee Dam. Studies of the beaches around Lake Roosevelt are also being conducted, but preliminary results on both items are not comprehensive enough to determine results. It is uncertain how much the study will cost, but Teck Resources has created a $20 million escrow account that the EPA could access if Teck fails to finish the work.
So far, with two more years to go, the study does not have enough information to make conclusions, said EPA Project Manager Helen Bottcher.
“We don’t have enough information to complete the risk assessment,” she told the Spokesman-Review in a Nov. 21 article.
Along with the ongoing EPA study, a group of doctors and medical researchers will also be starting a study examining illnesses suffered by Northport area residents, including Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn’s, Ileitis, Colon Cancer, and Diverticulitis.
The study has been approved by the Crohn’s and Colitis Center at the Massachusetts General Hospital and will be headed by doctors Dr. Josh Korzenik and Dr. Sharyle Folwer. The study, which has been approved by the center, is waiting to confirm funding before beginning the work.
Jamie Paparich, who said her own family has suffered considerably because of exposure to the Trail smelter’s pollutants, has been working with the Center to get the study approved.
A variety of health issues related to living along the Columbia River
“I have many members of my family who are suffering from ailments like leukemia, Parkinson’s Disease, ulcerative colitis, breast and uterine cancers due to their exposure to the plants particulate pollutants when they were children,” she said, referring to the family farm located on Mitchell Road near Northport. “Although they did not become ill until adulthood, it seems that the high level of exposure they had as children is linked to their sickness.”
Paparich said the data from past and recent heavy metal testing done on the air, soil, ground water, crops, gardens, beaches and fish will be used to find similarities between that information and the information collected on impacted residents.
The study, known as a “Case Control Study,” will be based around the residents diagnosed with specific issues, Ulcerative Colitis in particular, because of the current challenges to locate specific causes or triggers of the disease.
The study compares whether resident exposure to certain toxins and the routes in which they were exposed (air, water, food, etc.) are similar, helping to narrow down possible causes or trigger of the disease.
“This could eventually lead to a cure or better treatment of these diseases,” said Paparich, who noted one of her motivators behind her ongoing work with the Teck Resources discharges’ is how it has affected her family. “There has been so much suffering, and if our situation can help others, that makes something positive out of something negative.”
**Paparich said the heavy metal toxin health effects that could be discovered in this study could also contribute to additional research and the understanding of the “late affects” of heavy metal toxin exposure.
“‘Late affects’ are health issues caused by exposure to these toxins that take years, even decades, to develop and are usually diagnosed too late.’ Paparich said. “It also refers to the genetic effects these toxins create, including the mutated genes passed to the next generation.”
Many of her younger family members also suffer from early onset arthritis and thyroid issues.
“A questionnaire from Dr. Korzenik and Dr. Folwer will be sent to anyone interested. The questionnaire data will assist them in discovering similarities, such as age, diet, use of river, period of time exposed, as well as family health history lifestyle, etc. These kinds of case control studies are based around communities with a high amount of residents diagnosed with a rare illness that has no known cause… the community is known to have had/has chronic exposure to environmental toxins.”
A Link to Northport
Paparich said she is torn between recognizing the improvements Teck Resources has made in recent years to cleaning up past pollution and her desire for suffering and medical issues to be addressed.
“I know Teck says they are trying, but the Canadian standards are very lax,” Paparich said. “I don’t feel the safety levels are where they need to be. ”
Although Paparich did not grow up in the Northport area and currently lives in Nevada, she said a strong family connection gives her a link to the area.
“Northport is such a unique, beautiful town and I feel strongly for those who have worked and lived there,” she said.
“In a perfect world, the people who have suffered due to the pollution would be financially compensated for it; the plant would operate at safe levels and continue to be in production. But we all know that environmentally this is not a fixable issue in the short term…it could be difficult to connect some of these illnesses to pollutants due to the lack of disease information.”
Paparich said although a class-action lawsuit against Teck may be possible, depending on the results of the health study, she is uncertain if that is the course to take.
“The people in Northport are still very hard-working and likely would not want that kind of thing,” she said. “I am not against mining if it is done right.”
For more information about the study, contact Paparich at (775) 750-6384 or (775) 623-4373 or visit her blog https://northportproject.wordpress.com/.
BY JAMIE HENNEMAN