Northport, WA: Researching Illness on the Upper Columbia River

by: Their Mines, Our Stories

Their Mines, Our Stories began in 2005 as part of a class (Anne Fischel and Lin Nelson) taught together, called Local Knowledge, at The Evergreen State College….interested in learning about the experiences of laboring communities, and how workers and their families made sense of the complex interplay of economic, environmental and health factors that affect them and their communities.

Although our project has focused on a small number of ASARCO-impacted communities, we’ve also been fortunate to connect with communities who are engaged in similar struggles–although with different mining and smelting companies. This page is devoted to Northport, Washington, a small community of less than 400 people in northeast Washington State. We recently spent a weekend in Northport to screen our documentary, Under the Stack, and meet with community activists and researchers from Citizens for a Clean Columbia (CCC). The community is in the midst of an impressive effort to document the impacts of pollution emitted by TECK, a large lead and zinc smelter located a few miles upriver in Trail, British Columbia, Canada.

Residents of Northport are experiencing disturbingly high levels of ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s, two rare forms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). 

Northport has experienced what community researcher and advocate Jamie Paparich calls “a perfect storm of events” that fuels a quest to understand how the impacts of long-term smelter contamination may have affected the health of many of its citizens. Northport is only a few miles from the border with British Columbia. Because the river rounds a bend just before reaching Northport and slows down, smelter slag was deposited on the community’s beaches, where children regularly swam in the summer. One beach was known as the “Black Sand Beach,” and residents tell of playing in the black stuff when they were children ( Toxic air emissions crossed the U.S.-Canada border and were trapped in Northport’s valley. The emissions were particularly concentrated along Northport’s Mitchell Road, creating what the EPA has called a “heavy fallout zone”. Today, the residents of Mitchell Road are among those most affected by disease. Community members are seeking to understand if there are connections between the toxic smelter emissions and the illnesses that plague them, as well as the long-term consequences to their environment.

Ulcerative colitis creates inflammation and ulcers in the colon and rectum. It is painful and debilitating, and can be life-threatening. Crohn’s disease can occur in any part of the GI tract, including the mouth, esophagus, liver, stomach, colon and anus. Both diseases are thought to result from a combination of inherited genes, vulnerabilities in the immune system and environmental impacts. Both can be treated, but neither has a cure.

During our visit we were fortunate to be able to meet with members of the Citizens for a Clean Columbia group, including Joe Wickman, who currently offers technical support to the EPA, Bob Jackman, whose research has been critical to understanding the science and law of pollution that crosses jurisdictional boundaries, and Jamie Paparich. We also conducted a videotaped interview with Jamie, Rosemarie Phillips, Julie Sowards and Rose Kalamarides, all residents of Mitchell Rd., “the heavy fallout zone.”

The interview is available here.

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