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.
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 south 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. Teck did continue to monitor the air until 2009, according to EPA documents. The levels of arsenic and cadmium continued to exceed safety standards at the same rate. The residents of Northport were never made aware of these results.
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 – 2011 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 sclerosis, Parkinson’s and cases of the four types of cancers of concern had increased. The diagnosed cases of the rare IBD’s ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s reached such rare, extremely high levels that it caught the attention of Dr. Korzenik, director of the Crohn’s and Colitis Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH). With the assistance of the Crohn’s and Colitis Center of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and the Harvard Medical School, Dr. Korzenik and his team conducted their own community survey in which 119 current Northport residents participated, 17 residents had confirmed cases of either Crohn’s or colitis. Dr. Korzenik, one of the leading IBD researchers in the country, stated;
“That’s about 10 to 15 times what we’d expect to see in a population the size of Northport. I’m not aware of any other cluster like it.”
What the group of Northport women, gathered around their neighbor’s kitchen table in 1991, discovered by coming together and using plain common sense, took government agencies decades, and millions of dollars, to finally realize.
The EPA reached an agreement with Teck in 2006, in which Teck agreed to fund a remedial investigation of the Upper Columbia River area and clean up any contaminated areas with levels of toxins that would be hazardous to humans or the environment. However, the air still continues to be ignored.
All of the studies conducted of the area as far back as 1989 have 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).”
Ecology’s 2017 evaluation of the past air monitoring conducted in the area concluded that new, consistent air monitors should be installed at appropriate locations in and around Northport. They recommended this based on several “limitations” and “discrepancies” they found in Teck’s air monitoring recordings and reporting done in the past. Also, since the concentration of arsenic and cadmium already exceed the EPA’s Acceptable source impact level (ASIL) in Northport, Ecology believes it would be dangerous not to install these monitors as soon as possible.
Ecology’s above recommendation, along with a petition signed by 100 Northport residents and the opinion of the Northeast Tri-County Health District was not enough to persuade the EPA.
Last month the EPA informed Northport residents that after much consideration further air monitoring of the area would not be done. Cami Grandinetti, a manager in EPA’s remedial cleanup program, said;
“From our evaluation of data collected in 1999 to 2009 we believe that the risk to you from the outdoor air in Northport is low.”
Teck’s air emissions have poisoned over three generations of Northport residents. Residents continue to be diagnosed with debilitating autoimmune diseases at alarming rates. So how is it that the EPA believes that our risk from Teck’s air emissions in the air in Northport is low? Especially since all past air monitoring done in our area has shown just the opposite.