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 the Environmental Protecton Agency (EPA), Dpt. Of Ecology, Dpt of Health (DOH), and the Agency for Toxic Sustaces and Disease Registry (ATSDR) studies conducted in the Northport area, I discovered information so unthinkable I really didn’t believe it to be true at first. The studies of the U.S. Government Agencies, mentioned above, were of interest to me because they were in regards to the century of heavy metal toxins Teck Cominco had dumped into the Columbia 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, in Trail, Bristish Columbia. The slag and air emissions they had sent our way are the by-products of the process Teck uses to smelter the lead and zinc ores. They contain heavy metal toxins such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, and sulfur dioxide, just to name a few.
What I discovered in these US agency investigations and reports is that since before 1940 thru 1997 Teck Resources dumped an estimated 9.8 million tons of slag (heavy metal toxins) 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, everyday, for 60 years. The smelter found a free way to dispose of their waste and never so much as questioned the consequences their actions would have on the Columbia River, the environment, or on the health of the residents living in the 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 done. The EPA, Ecology, DOH, and ATSDR had discovered the accumulated toxins, and knew the danger they posed to residents in the area, as far back as the mid 1980’s. However, all their investigations concluded that more information would be needed for further research, And that the area posed an “intermediate health hazard”, but residents were “most likely” not in any immediate danger. Never once did any of the Government Agencies warn, or even tell, anyone living in Northport that they had been, and continued to be, chronically exposed to multiple heavy metal toxins, through multiple routes of exposure, for decades.
The DOH and the ATSDR did a human health assessment in 1994 on a small percentage of residents, because at a town meeting the community demanded they look into the health issues found in many of the residents. They took the blood of approx.. 22 children in Northport. They tested only for lead. They then spoke to the many residents suffering from Thuroid Diseases, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Ulcerative Colitis/Chrone’s), Multiple Scoliosis, Parkinson’s Disease, Brain Tumors/Aneurisms, Brain, Stomach, Kidney, Pancreatic, Bladder, Breast, Eye Cancer and Leukemia. The ATSDR concluded that, although the amount of illnesses found was uncommonly high, further environmental investigations needed to be done by the EPA and Ecology before the DOH could proceed. Ecology completed four air monitoring phases by 1997, all four phases showed levels of cadmium to be higher than recommended safety levels, and arsenic was found to be 300 times higher than accepted safety levels. The DOH did no follow up on this information. And, again, residents were not even made aware of the results.
My Father grew up in Northport, along with his siblings and parents. They all suffer, or suffered, 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 for decades as Teck was allowed to dump 9.8 million tons of heavy metal toxins/poisons into our water, as well as the heavy metal toxins (arsenic, cadmium, sulphur dioxide) that they released into our air through their smoke stacks. 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. The people I have spoken to with specific knowledge on the subject believe the studies are designed to find in favor of the polluter. Especially when the polluter is in another country and a fight would cause a cross border litigation, which could back fire on the United States.
Finally, in 2006, Two members of the Pakootas Colville Tribe sued the EPA for inaction. The court ordered, under CERCLA/Superfund Laws, the EPA to immediately begin a Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study (RI/FS) and a Human Health Risk Assessment of the area. With, or without Teck Resources assistance.
They needed to be sued to be forced to do their jobs to protect us. These studies are still not complete. How many lives could have been saved if they would have done their jobs correctly from the beginning?
Not enough, according to Teck. An internal memo circulated among Teck management in 1982 that stated that the amount of toxins being dumped daily into the river, and specifically the recent accidental release of 6,630 pds of Mercury into the river, might pose as an issue for Teck down the line if safer guidelines were not put in place. The memo went on to say immediate action was not necessary because, currently the toxins were coming into contact with an “insignificant amount of people”. The insignificant people they are referring to are the residents of Northport.
So, Teck felt that the town of Northport, with only 375 residents, was simply insignificant in the grand scheme of things. 375 fathers, mothers, grandparents, children, sisters, and brothers…they were just not significant enough. The friends and family I have lost to these diseases were 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 in 2008. Many of the resident who began this fight had passed away, or were still living with their debilitating illnesses, as they now watched their children and grandchildren being diagnosed with the same illnesses. With the assistance of the CCC, and the participation of residents, I conducted a community health survey on three generations of past and present Northport residents. From 2008-2009 I collected 321 questionnaires. The results of the questionnaires showed that, over three generations, 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 aneurysms/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 epidemiological health clusters by the scientific community. Meaning their exposure to some environmental factor(s) were most likely the trigger of these diseases, or at least played a significant role.
Since this health survey was done by residents, and not by the EPA, Ecology, DOH or 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, gathering medical history, and mapping out the findings, 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 one of the biggest he had ever seen. It was 11.5 to 15% higher than 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 use the suffering residents of Northport, who were more than willing, to take part in an epidemiological study on them and the area. Further studies could 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 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 cut 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 real evidence, provided by Teck 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 civil lawsuit against the multi million dollar smelter. Most of the residents were not that interested in joining the class action suit. They believed that no amount of money would bring back their loved ones, or the years their poor health had stolen 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 very 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. The lawyer’s initial filing was accepted by the Court. Teck, of course, filed for the case to be dismissed. 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 Northport valley.
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 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 admitting been releasing for decades.
Please feel free to email me with any questions or ideas.
Thank you for taking the time to read this!