The Perfect Storm
by: Jamie Paparich
Northport is a small town in northeast Washington, located 12 miles from the Canadian border. The town has approximately 375 residents, many of them born and raised there, as were their parents and grandparents.
It is a wonderful little town, situated along the Columbia River in a beautiful valley. Unfortunately, it is this beautiful valley and river front location that helped create a perfect storm of events that have caused countless residents to be plagued with multiple diseases and cancers, spanning three generations. It is also the reason the EPA and DOH refer to Northport as the “heavy fallout zone.”
The pollution is coming from Teck Resources, a Canadian smelter located 3 miles up river in Trail, B.C.. Teck (previously Teck Cominco) started operating the smelter in 1896, then known as The Trail Smelter. It is now one of the largest lead and zinc smelters in the world. Unfortunately their success has come at a great price to the people of Northport.
Slag, the solid byproduct of the smelting process, is a black, glass and sand like material that contains heavy metal toxins including; arsenic, cadmium, lead, zinc and mercury. For over 90 years, from 1906 thru 1996, Teck dumped approximately 9.8 million tons of slag directly into the Columbia River. That is the equivalent of 450 tonnes a day, for 32,850 days. Teck reasoned that the velocity of the Columbia river would dilute the toxic slag long before it could impact the ecosystem, the river, the environment or the populated areas it would flow through. They were wrong.
Unfortunately, the swift moving river begins to curve, causing it to slow as it flows into Northport, 3 miles down river from the smelter. This allows the slag to stagnate, settling to the bottom of the river, while also dispersing and settling onto the town’s riverbanks, beaches, and swimming holes. Children in Northport spent most of the hot summer days playing in these swimming holes, filled with highly toxic water. If they weren’t at the swimming holes they were playing on the beaches. A favorite local beach was Black Sand Beach. It was named this because the sand appeared black, but actually it was not sand at all, it was slag from the smelter.
Another byproduct of the smelting process is the air emissions released from the smelter’s two smoke stacks. The emissions contain the same heavy metal toxins the slag contains. The smelter’s air emissions flow south into Northport, where the majority of the toxic air becomes trapped in the valley.
The area specifically referred to as the “heavy fallout zone” are the farms located approximately 2 miles outside of Northport, located along Mitchell Road, on the west side of the river, in the valley. These farms received the brunt of the smelter’s pollution because the majority of the air settled above them and they were located next to the area of the river that had the most recesses, and where it slowed. For more info on the smelter’s impact click here.
The families living in the “heavy fallout zone” also suffer from the same rare illnesses. Beginning as early as 1960, many of the children living along Mitchell Road have been diagnosed with two very rare inflammatory bowel diseases; ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Many of the adults have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, parkinson’s disease, leukemia, prostate, bladder, stomach, and breast cancer.
My Grandparents ranch is located in the heavy fallout zone. A beautiful ranch they scrimped and saved to buy in 1957, pouring their blood, sweat and tears into it until their deaths. My Grandfather passed away from leukemia and my Grandmother passed away from parkinson’s. My father and aunt have suffered from ulcerative colitis their entire lives, eventually both of them had to have their large intestines removed, as did many of their childhood friends.
Washington State Department of Ecology conducted four air monitoring studies in Northport between 1993-1998. One of the air monitors were set up on my Grandparents land for all 4 phases. The results of all four showed extremely high levels of arsenic, cadmium and lead in the air. The levels exceeded EPA’s Acceptable Source Impact Level (ASIL), and the Risk-Based Concentration (RBC) levels. The levels of arsenic were 200 times higher than national safety standards. No one ever warned my Grandparents of the results, or anyone living in Northport.
In the late 1980’s the EPA conducted soil sampling on the farm as well. They found elevated levels of arsenic, cadmium and lead in several of the soil samples collected, including the testing they did on their gardens and crops. They never informed anyone of these results either.
The residents of Northport were, and are, exposed to Teck’s heavy metal toxins 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, through multiple routes of exposure. Through the air they breath, the soil they ingest from garden grown produce, the dust they breath in their house, and the toxic particulate matter in the air that absorbs through their skin. There is nowhere for them to escape it, and until very recently they were not even aware the danger existed.
The heavy fallout zone was created because of a perfect storm of events. The Canadian Ministry of the Environment and the United State’s EPA turning a blind eye to Teck’s gross negligence and permit violations, the smelter’s air emissions becoming trapped in the valley, the location and speed of the river, and the lack of support, or even warnings, from the very U.S. agencies created to protect us.
With the current situation in Flint, Michigan the press coverage has people talking about how the U.S. agencies, specifically the EPA, and the state and federal government officials could have let down this poor community in such a devastating way. This is not an isolated incident.
The truth is this is happening all over the United States, in countless small towns. The EPA and the DOH conduct studies of areas suspected to be impacted by local industrial sources. However, even when their studies conclude the communities are being exposed to dangerous levels of toxins, and they are in “intermediate danger”, the assistance ends there. The EPA and the DOH have told our community it is beyond their scope to do anything more than report their findings. They didn’t even tell us this until a few citizens actually took the time to read the complex reports they published and discovered, in the fine print, the danger we were in.
In 1999 the EPA finally issued a unilateral order to Teck to take financial responsibility for a remedial investigation and feasibility study of the area. Teck ignored this order, and the EPA all but forgot about it. They took no further action until 2003, when two members from the Colville Confederated Tribe filed a lawsuit to force the EPA to enforce the 1999 unilateral order against Teck. If it were not for these two brave individuals, the EPA would have continued to ignore us.
When finally forced into action, these U.S. agencies spend decades completing studies, and then it takes several more years for them to publish their findings. On the rare occasions they share their findings with the communities, they slant the facts and statistics, ensuring the residents are (most likely) safe, even though sound science says otherwise.
These agencies, whose salaries we fund, are not doing their jobs. They claim it is not their job to do much more than pass their results on to “other” government agencies that can assist us in the aftermath of their findings. The scary thing is these “other” government agencies do not exist. Has no one in the government realized this?
Due to the accumulation, (or body burden), of toxins in the organs and cells, many illnesses linked to chronic exposure to heavy metal toxins, through multiple routes of exposure, don’t result for decades.
Soon the EPA will be unable to deny a correlation between the toxins they under reported to the hundreds of communities they investigated for decades, and the cluster of health issues being discovered in these same communities now. These consequences could have been avoided when the EPA was established in 1970, instead they have spent 46 years doing work governed by politics, industry, and in an atmosphere that encourages the employees to do as little work as possible, and to drag their feet while doing it.
It is our money that pays for these agencies, so it is our right and responsibility to hold Congress accountable to make major changes in the structure and guidelines of these federal agencies, who intern oversee state agencies. Congress represents us, the agencies are responsible for protecting us. It is time we hold them accountable for decades of negligence.