Runaway Train

Small communities through-out the United States are slowly, and unknowingly, being poisoned.  The poisons are unavoidable.  The residents are exposed to them from the air and dust they breath, the water they drink, the soil they grow gardens in, and the small particulate matter that they absorb through their skin.  There is no where to hide, and even if there were they aren’t even aware of the danger they should be hiding from. The question is, perhaps they are better off not knowing?

Industrial pollution is nothing new.  To a small community the benefits usually outweigh the cost.  These industries bring hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs to their community.  They bring with them a promise of a better future.  A promise of job security, retirement, 401k’s, insurance.  They also bring with them their pollution.  Industrial pollution is an unavoidable consequence that we have been aware of since the Industrial Revolution began in 1840.  For well over a century the damage the toxic by-products of these industries were basically ignored.  There was very little evidence that the pollution was causing effects to people’s health or the environment.  By the time enough scientists, environmentalists, and personally affected advocates took notice the problem was like an oncoming, out of control train with no brakes.  Stopping it would take a miracle, ignoring it would eventually cause a disaster unlike any we had ever seen.

The Government saw the train coming, so they attempted to slow it down.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established on December 2, 1970.  Once the EPA fully understood the depth of the damage they were dealing with more government agencies were formed, specifically the Department of Health (DOH).  The amount of locations and the severity of the damage industrial polluters had created was simply unmanageable.  In 1980, in an attempt to hold these polluters financially responsible for the clean-up of these sites, a federal law was passed.  The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).  In 1986 The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 (SARA) was also passed.  CERCLA & SARA gave the EPA the resources to establish and begin remediation of Superfund sites, locations throughout the U.S. so contaminated they require long-term investigations and millions of dollars of remediation to effectively clean up the hazardous materials.

Almost all Superfund sites are located near communities impacted by the toxins from the site.  The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) was created to assist the EPA with the hundreds of health consultations of impacted communities at Superfund sites needed.  It appeared the Government’s attempt to at least slow down the train was working, in theory.

My family is from Northport, Washington. We were one of those communities blissfully ignorant that we were slowly being poisoned. Northport is located in northeast Washington, 12 miles from the Canadian border.  It is a breathtaking little town, situated on the banks of the mighty Columbia River.  It is a small, close knit community of 375 people.  Many of the residents are from the families of the town’s original settlers.   

For over 100 years the residents of Northport have been, and continue to be, poisoned by the heavy metal toxins released by Teck, a lead and zinc smelter in Trail B.C. Canada.  The discharge from Teck’s smelting process is referred to as slag.  Slag is a black, sand like material that contains arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury.  From 1906 – 1996 Teck disposed of their slag through two specially designed pipes that dumped it directly into the Columbia River, 3 miles upriver from Northport.  Teck’s records indicate they dumped approximately 9.8 million tons of slag into the river over the course of 90 years. 

The air emissions from Teck’s smelting process are released from two smoke stacks. Teck increased the height of these smoke stacks shortly after a lawsuit brought against them in 1933. Two farmers from Northport sued Teck for damages to their crops and cows, caused by the massive amount of sulfur dioxide Teck was releasing from the smoke stacks.  Statements from residents at the time recall the suffocating smell of the sulfur dioxide, paint peeling off cars, barb wire fences disintegrating, and farm animals falling over dead.  Teck eventually lost the suit and was told to find a way to drastically reduce their emissions of sulfur dioxide.  In an attempt to comply, but avoid financial loss, they raised the height of the smoke stacks.  Their theory was their air pollution would be dispersed high enough as to not cause damage to the environment below.  Unfortunately the increased height of the smoke stacks actually dispersed the pollution further.  This pollution often got trapped in the valley in Northport, giving the farms located in the valley the nickname of “the heavy fallout zone”.  All four Department of Ecology air monitoring studies done in Northport between 1992-1994 concluded levels of arsenic and cadmium were well above all safety standards.  Arsenic levels were 200 times higher than recommended safety levels.

The EPA conducted a site assessment of the area between 1999-2003.  They found it was so contaminated it fell under CERCLA, or the Superfund guidelines. A remedial investigation and feasibility study was planned. 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 Colville 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.  There has been a clean-up of a beach and many residential soil clean-ups.

However, despite the data of contamination collected from the EPA investigations, and the multiple health issues reported by the residents, the DOH and the ATSDR did not think the health issues and exposure to the heavy metal toxins were linked.  In 2004 the ATSDR published their Public Health Assessment of Northport.  In it they stated “ATSDR’s conclusions are based on the environmental sampling and health outcome data that were available to ATSDR between 1995 and 1999. With few exceptions, these data showed no evidence of adverse health effects associated with exposure to environmental contaminants, but significant data gaps existed.”

When an established government agency tells you their is no evidence of health issues caused by your exposure to confirmed environmental toxins that should be a relief.  It was a relief, to many people.  However, the extremely high rate of rare illnesses and diseases diagnosed in three generations, of a town of approximately 350 people, still weighed on the community member’s minds.  The discussion of the illnesses died down a bit after the report.  Until the next diagnosis was made, and another, and then another.

Residents in Northport decided to conduct their own health survey in 2009.  Health questionnaires were distributed to current and past residents of Northport, spanning three generations. We received more than 500 completed questionnaires. Per the health cluster guidelines of the CDC and ATSDR, the results we collected from the returned questionnaires showed health clusters of brain aneurisms (23), specific cancers (65), parkinson’s disease/multiple scoliosis (13), thyroid diseases (116), and ulcerative colitis and crohn’s disease (54).   According to the ATSDR’s ToxGuide, the EPA’s toxicity profiles, and the DOH’s toxic standards, chronic exposure to the heavy metal toxins released by Teck can be linked to all of these health issues.

The DOH and the ATSDR had already discovered the health cluster of ulcerative colitis and crohn’s disease in the area in 1992 and 2004, but they claimed there was no way to link the extremely rare diseases to our exposure to the heavy metal toxins of concerns the EPA identified.   

After publishing the results of our community health survey a doctor with Massachusetts General Hospital’s Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation contacted us.  He conducted his own study on 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 disease, focusing on the amount of accumulated toxins found in their systems and referencing the EPA residential soil study results.

I recently contacted the regional director of the ATSDR, Rhonda Kaetzel, and Kay Morrison with the WA DOH, regarding the Government agencies unwillingness to go forward with a human health assessment of Northport. The Canadian smelter has admitted fault for the pollution, and the environmental testing confirms the specific heavy metal toxins found above standard safety levels.  Armed with this information, it would seem our little town of 375 people would be ideal for several epidemiological research studies on the many health clusters discovered.  Many of the illnesses reported do not have cures, and what causes them has yet to be discovered.  In part, Ms. Kaetzel, the ATSDR director, responded with: “…DOH has communicated in the past that establishing a new link between a disease and environmental contaminant is not something that can be achieved without studying a large population of people with the disease and who have diverse exposures. Without a well-established link or specific funding, this type of research study is beyond the scope of the ATSDR-funded program within DOH and ATSDR.  Ms. Morrison’s response was more apologetic, in it she stated: “I understand that you’d like more research to be done to discover links between environmental contaminants and a number of reported illnesses in the Northport area.  Unfortunately EPA and ATSDR do not perform this kind of broad research….”

Chronic exposure to even low levels of heavy metal toxins cause health issues, the ATSDR, DOH, and EPA admit this.  The lack of knowledge on the actual health effects triggered or caused by this exposure are not well understood by these agencies due to the lack of long term investigations.  However, if they would utilize our established environmental history, and bio-monitoring of the impacted residents, a great deal might be learned.

Time and time again all of the Government agencies created to protect us have told me that our communities health issues are “beyond the scope” of their responsibilities.  So if it is none of these agencies responsibilities to protect future generations from the health issues possibly caused by long term exposure to low levels of these toxins, whose responsibility is it?

Maybe these agencies just assume it is better off not knowing.  Let someone else jump in front of that train.

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