On Tuesday, October 15th residents of Northport, WA gathered in the high school cafeteria for a town meeting. The meeting, arranged by the EPA, was to discuss the progress of the ongoing agreement between the EPA and Teck Resources to evaluate smelter-related pollution impacts of the area, which is being executed through Teck’s Upper Columbia River Remedial Investigation / Feasibility Study (RI/FS) and the EPA’s Human Health Risk Assessment (HHRA).
Robert Tan, the new EPA project manager of the Upper Columbia River Site Study, introduced himself and ran through a quick history of the project. Other EPA members took turns presenting powerpoint slides listing graphs and brief summaries of the results of the sampling and studies that Teck has conducted of the area, beginning in approx. 2012.
They highlighted the clean-ups they have conducted in the area. In 2014, because of the results of a 2012 Ecology study which found elevated levels of lead, arsenic and cadmium near the border, the EPA conducted soil sampling at 74 properties in the Northport area, finding very high lead levels at 17 properties and offered to remove the contaminated soil and replace it with clean soil. Under the RI/FS agreement, Teck performed those cleanups.
The theme of the meeting was the exciting announcement that Teck’s Remedial Investigation (RI) part of the RI/FS is coming to an end, which means the EPA’s Human Health Risk Assessment (HHRA) would soon be completed as well.
However, the information below, presented after the announcement of the RI and HHRA nearing completion, left the community feeling more concerned than excited.
Marc Stifelman, an EPA toxicologist and Human Health Risk Assessor, who is the project manager of our Human Health Risk Assessment, presented a quick and complex explanation of the levels of lead being a main concern to them, specifically since the EPA recently reduced the safety level of the parts per million (ppm) of lead down to 500 from 700. When asked if the medical history of the many residents sick with similar autoimmune diseases in the area would be utilized as part of the human health risk assessment the answer was no. When asked if the community would be provided blood lead level testing the answer was no, due to an issue with the last testing process producing many false positives.
The biggest concern expressed by the community is the lack of current air monitoring of the area. In 2017, in response to the many concerns of Northport residents, the WA Department of Ecology’s Toxics Cleanup Programs asked their Air Quality Program specialists to evaluate air conditions and assess whether more air monitoring was needed. This analysis was based on existing air monitoring data collected by air monitors around Northport operated by Ecology from 1992 – 1998 and air monitors at Sheep Creek operated by Teck from 1993 – 2009. The 2017 evaluation concluded that current, ongoing air monitoring of the area is needed because of potential present day health risks.
Ecology shared the results of their analysis with the EPA and Teck Resources. Ecology stressed their belief that additional air monitoring is an important part of EPA and Teck’s agreement and associated remedial investigation and human health risk assessment. The Northeast Tri-County Health District also supports current monitoring to determine whether a public health risk is present. EPA officials, however, disagree that additional monitoring is needed. They believe, based on Teck’s additional improvements at the smelter over the years, the levels of the heavy metal toxins of concern in the air, (arsenic, cadmium and lead), that were above safety standards in the past, would now “likely” be lower.
Although the community is appreciative of the work that has been, and continues to be, done by the EPA and Teck Resources we are concerned with the large gaps of data that seem necessary to come to an accurate conclusion of both the Remedial Investigation and the Human Health Risk Assessment.