Written by Jaime Weinstein
Published on September 18, 2012
Small towns are often known for having a story or legend to call their own. This story in particular involves the quiet little town of Northport, Wash., a long-standing pollution battle with a Canadian mining company, and a potential cluster of Inflammatory Bowel Disease diagnoses. For the 295 residents who live in and around Northport, this story is one they definitely could do without.
Canadian mining company Teck Resources Ltd. (formerly Teck Cominco) one of the biggest lead and Zinc smelters in the world has a history of pollution dating back close to a century.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease, which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis; cause of disease is currently unknown, but researchers believe that genetic and environmental factors are associated.
A courageous former Northport resident, Jamie Paparich, who brings information of 50 current and past residents with IBD to the attention of Harvard researchers in 2011.
117 current and former Northport residents who participate in a health study designed by Dr. Joshua Korzenik, a Harvard researcher and director of Crohn’s and Colitis Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
The 17 people in Dr. Korzenik’s initial study who came back with confirmed cases of either type of IBD.
In the early 1900s, the company now known as Teck Resources Ltd. started out as a gold mine operation along the Columbia River in Trail B.C., Canada. As the years moved on the mining operation grew to include Zinc, copper, coal and oil.
Starting in the 1930s, farmers from the towns of Northport and Marcus file suit against Teck Cominco (the company’s name at the time) on the grounds that the smelter’s air pollution is destroying crops, especially along farms located on Mitchell Road. This became a landmark case in terms of farmers and pollution.
By 1940, the mining company admits to dumping up to 1,000 tons of slag (mining waste consisting of harmful chemicals like arsenic, cadmium and lead). By the 1980s mercury spills and regular dumping are added to the list of pollutants the company’s smelter is responsible for.
A smelter is a machine that uses extreme heat and pressure to melt or fuse ore in order to separate metallic compounds. The extraction process creates extreme amounts of waste and much of this waste was pumped into the Columbia River up until the mid-1990s.
The Plot Thickens
By the early 1990s the U.S. became aware of Canada fining Teck due to inappropriate dumping procedures involving sulfuric acid, Zinc and cadmium, as well as spills of sulfuric acid, but the U.S. refrains from lobbying fines of their own. Once there was knowledge of a spill, U.S. government agencies were supposed to notify local residents right away. However, this did not occur in relation to the Teck smelter.
Several studies conducted through the 80s and 90s showed elevated levels of mercury in fish such as trout. The most dangerous levels found in fish that many residents liked to catch and consume were usually found around the time a spill had recently occurred. Upon the conclusion of later testing, mercury levels had gone down to a reasonable level in the fish. However, it was found that bottom-dwelling fish were still showing higher than reasonable amounts of mercury in their system. Residents were not notified.
When a corporate memo was issued internally by a Teck environmental manager, Richard Dalosse, it didn’t seem very positive. The memo sent to Dalosse’s supervisors included a startling quote, “If we fail to ensure accurate monitoring of this discharge, it is possible that we could be held civilly or criminally liable.” By then Canadian regulators were already urging Teck to conduct a study regarding the Columbia River and pollution.
In 1994, Teck’s Columbia River Integrated Environmental Monitoring Program concluded its river pollution study. Findings showed a substantial amount of toxins were found south of Teck’s smelter inside of the river’s sediment. The study ended at the Canadian/U.S. border, but located just south of the border are the towns of Northport, Waneta and Washington.
It’s important to note that dumping in the river, within limits, is legal on both the American and Canadian sides of the river. However it’s become increasingly clear that Teck has had quality control issues with over dumping and spills; the last took place in 2010.
One outstanding issue residents of surrounding towns have with this information is that legally they should have been notified and never were. Much of this information has been collected thanks to the curiosity and diligence of a frustrated former resident, Jamie Paparich, whose own family members and friends suffer from various forms of IBD.
Putting the Pieces of the Story Together
On August 15 the Vancouver Sun ran an interview with Jamie Paparich and her aunt, Rose Kalamarides. Paparich a former Northport resident formed the Northport Project, which now consists of an extensive series of documents including a timeline laying out varying amounts of pollution dumped, spills, and the dates they took place.
As part of the Northport Project, Paparich performed an informal survey she hoped would catch the eye of the medical community. Results came back showing what Paparich had suspected all along, a potential IBD cluster, as well as something else. Additional smaller clusters involving certain types of cancer, as well as thyroid disease and Multiple Sclerosis; both are also inflammatory disease brought on by the immune system.
Speaking about the location of the family farm she grew up on, “It’s where the river starts to slow down and creates pools and swimming holes.” Both Paparich’s father and aunt grew up on the farm, as well. “All these kids swam in it, we irrigated with it, for decades, she added.” In the 1980s the state of Washington placed air monitors on the property to track air pollution. Results showed elevated levels of arsenic and cadmium.
Why did they do it?
One possibility could be, because the family farm is located along Mitchell Road. The very same road from the landmark farming lawsuit that took place many decades ago.
Rose Kalamarides, along with another sister, related a story to reporters about how during summertime their mother’s grocery bill was never higher than $5.00. Everything they ate came from the farm. Looking back now, they acknowledge you can’t see pollution in the head of lettuce you’re eating. And when referring to the aroma that wafted 15 miles south into Northport, Kalamarides told the Spokesman-Review, “When we were kids walking to school, we could smell it in the air.”
Now at the age of 56, Kalamarides has been dealing with ulcerative colitis for close to 30 years. Along with struggling to keep weight on and having to endure numerous blood transfusions, Kalamarides has had quite the battle with ulcerative colitis from having to have her colon removed to needing an ostomy, and now requires a catheter. As for her brother Jim (Paparich’s father), he has the disease too but is faring better.
Included in the group of people who have IBD that Kalamarides personally knows are a good friend, her third grade teacher and a childhood classmate.
Growing concerned with the amount of people she knew living with IBD, Paparich took the information she gathered from her Northport Project’s informal survey and set out to get the attention of the medical community. And that’s exactly what happened. Introducing Dr. Joshua Korzenik, director of the Crohn’s and Colitis Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the man who Paparich got to pay attention to her findings.
After Paparich got the attention of Dr. Korzenik, he put together a small health study, which he hopes to expand and get funding for eventually. For now, it will be a labor of love for him and his team. The study contained 119 current and former Northport residents. The results, 17 came back with having either ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.
“…it’s a very high number – about 10 to 15 times higher than expected…”
What this means in terms of the bigger picture is that it’s a very high number – about 10 to 15 times higher than expected to be seen in a small population like Northport, said Dr. Korzenik. As for one of Dr. Korzenik’s fellow researchers, Dr. Sharyle Fowler, she said, “We should be expecting to see one or two cases for a town the size of Northport.”
There are also others in Northport with digestive tract issues, who have not officially received an IBD diagnosis at this time, like two of Clifford Ward’s children.
The End …
Through his preliminary research, Dr. Korzenik has already ruled out a genetic influence being linked to the potential Northport cluster. Yes, he believes it is a cluster. The genetic theory was discounted when results showed only a few individuals were related; like Jamie Paparich’s aunt and father.
Another thing the Harvard research team found interesting is that of the 17 people from the study confirmed to have IBD, seven of them live(d) along Mitchell Road. Yes, the very same road where Paparich’s family farm is located and area of farmland related to the landmark lawsuit.
While there is no cure for Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis yet, much speculation circulates around environmental triggers since increases in diagnoses started after the industrial revolution took place. It is with this reasoning that if the IBD cluster can be confirmed, Dr. Korzenik believes Northport could hold the key to finally getting much needed answers.
What a great ending this could make — Northport, the town that helped cure Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.