by: Jamie Paparich
In 1992 reporter Julie Titone wrote an article in the Spokesman-Review, “Canadian companies suspected in illnesses.” The article focused on a group of mothers in Northport, Washington and the health effects their small community suffered from because of, in their opinion, chronic exposure to the heavy metal toxins released by a Canadian smelter 3 miles up river, Teck Cominco.
The article begins with neighbors Naomi Palm, Faye Jackman, and Kay Paparich sitting in Naomi’s kitchen. In front of Naomi was her hand written notes of a health survey the women conducted in the community. The notes listed the similar illnesses her and all her neighbors, family, and friends suffered from. Naomi called it her “death list”. The list contained 45 previous residents who passed away from four types of cancer, and 163 residents all suffering from similar diseases. In a town of 375 people the list was alarming, to say the least.
At the time of the article the small community was paralyzed with fear. Children continued to be diagnosed with two rare intestinal diseases, friends and neighbors were passing away from brain aneurisms or tumors, cancer, or suffering from the debilitating effects of multiple scoliosis and parkinson’s disease.
The town first became aware of the startling amount of illnesses being diagnosed in the community in the late 1970’s. After repeated requests, the Washington State Department of Health finally did a health investigation in 1988. However, the health investigator who conducted the investigation left the department and the findings were never made public.
So in 1991 these determined women began conducting their own health survey of the community. After months of knocking on doors they compiled the information their neighbors had provided. They discovered that of the 7 families living along Mitchell Road, all living within a 2 mile radius of each other, fifteen children had been diagnosed with 2 rare auto immune diseases, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. At the time of the survey approximately 1 in 100,000 people were diagnosed with either Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn’s in the United States.
The woman also discovered that of the six families living along Waneta Road, across the Columbia River from Mitchell Road, 12 people had died, or suffered from, brain aneurisms or brain tumors. Statistically 8-10 people out of 100,000 people suffer from a brain aneurism in the United States.
Naomi mapped out the illnesses collected from their survey in an attempt to understand if their route of exposure to the smelter’s toxins might be the common denominator effecting their families with these rare illnesses. Their exposures differed in many ways. Not everyone swam in the river, not everyone grew their own gardens, or ate the fish…..but the one common denominator quickly became clear. It was the air. The families all lived in a valley, next to the Columbia River. The pollution flowing north from the smelter often got trapped in the valley walls.
Two months after the 1992 article was published the Washington State Department of Ecology began the first of four phases of air monitoring in the area. The results of all four phases of the monitoring showed that levels of arsenic were 200 times higher than national safety standards, and levels of cadmium were 18 times higher. Ecology issued the smelter a warning that continuous air monitoring of the area was necessary. The residents of Northport were never made aware of these results. Teck did continue to monitor the air until 2006, according to EPA documents. The levels of arsenic and cadmium continued to exceed safety standards at the same rate.
The 1992 article ended with Kay Paparich voicing her concern for future generations of Northport residents, “It’s too late for my children because they’ve already got these problems, but what about the little ones coming up?”
“The little ones coming up”, that Kay was so concerned about in 1992, are now in their 20’s and 30’s, suffering from the same illnesses that these women discussed in Naomi’s kitchen 24 years ago.
In 2009 residents conducted another community health survey of past and present Northport residents. The results mirrored those of the 1991 community health survey, and confirmed Kay’s concerns were valid. Not only were residents still being diagnosed with the same health issues, at the same rate, reported cases of multiple scoliosis, Parkinson’s and cases of the four types of cancers of concern had increased.
What these women discovered by coming together and using plain common sense, took government agencies decades, and millions of dollars, to finally realize. The agencies were able to negotiate with the smelter to remove contaminated soil from beaches along the Columbia River, residential property, and upland soil. However, the air still continues to be ignored. If the smelter is monitoring it, they are no longer sharing the results with our government agencies, and our government agencies are not monitoring it.
The 1929 & 1936 USDA studies, the 1992 – 1998 Ecology air monitoring studies, the 1994 – 2006 Teck air monitoring, EPA’s decade long remedial investigations, along with Ecology’s soil and wetland studies, The Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), and Teck’s own remedial investigations, have all confirmed specific heavy metal contamination of the Upper Columbia River area, specifically in and around Northport. It has forensically and scientifically confirmed that the source of contamination is Teck Resources. More specifically, the primary source of contamination is from Teck’s aerial dispersion of heavy metal toxins, through their smoke stacks.
EPA project manager Laura Buelow stated, “(T)he data shows that the soil became contaminated from historical smelting operations at the Trail smelter, specifically the metals coming out of the smelter stacks (air).”
To simplify the point; between 1921-2005 Teck smelter released; 38,465 tons of Zinc, 22,688 tons of Lead, 1,225 tons of Arsenic, 1,103 tons of Cadmium, and 97 tons of Mercury through their air emissions.
Currently the air in Northport is not being monitored. Ecology does not have the funds to install monitoring, the EPA has not been able to negotiate it as part of Teck’s remedial investigation and human health risk assessment.
Teck’s air emissions have poisoned over three generations of Northport residents. Nothing is being done to protect the next three generations, or the generations after that.
To request air monitors be installed in and around Northport contact EPA project manager Laura Buelow at: Buelow.Laura@epa.gov