For over 100 years the residents of Northport, a small town in northeast Washington near the Canadian border, have slowly been poisoned by the heavy metal toxins released by Teck Cominco, a smelter in Trail B.C. Canada.
Teck Cominco, (now known as Teck Resources), is one of the world’s largest lead and zinc smelting plants in the world. Since 1906 the smelter’s processing of ore concentrates produce lead, zinc, cadmium, sulfuric acid and a number of other toxins. The by product, or discharge, from the smelting process contains dangerous heavy metal toxins and is released into the environment in two ways; into the water and air.
The solid discharge is known as slag. Slag is a black, sand like material made up of heavy metal toxins such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, manganese, mercury and chromium, just to name a few. From 1906 – 1996 Teck dumped 450 tons of slag a DAY into the Columbia River. Teck reasoned that, due to the velocity of the Columbia River, the slag would disperse and dilute, making it harmless. Unfortunately, Teck was wrong. The practice of disposing the slag into the river was stopped in 1996. It was estimated at that time that Teck had dumped approximately 9.8 million tons of slag into the river, and concern was growing regarding the impact the slag was having on the environment and human health.
Contrary to Teck’s theory, the slag was not being diluted by the time it reached a populated area. Approximately 3 miles down river from the smelter the Columbia crosses into Washington State and runs through Northport. It is here the slag settles to the bottom of the river and along the banks and beaches.
THE TOWN OF NORTHPORT
The population of Northport is, and has been, stable at around 310 people in town and approximately 65 living just outside the town limits. It is a rural community that utilizes the river not only for livelihood but for recreational use as well. The farmers and ranchers irrigate their crops and water their livestock with the river water. The children spend their childhood fishing in the river and most summer days swimming in it, especially in the swimming holes. The swimming holes, or potholes, are pools of river water that overflow into deep recesses of the land. The recessed area fills up with river water and the water becomes warm due to the heat of the summer sun. 40 years ago these warm pools of water became the perfect place for children to splash, swim and spend a good portion of their summer in. It also became the perfect place for the slag from the river water to settle to the bottom, banks, and adjacent area around the “swimming hole”. As the children would spend endless summer days enjoying the river and the swimming holes they didn’t know they were slowly being poisoned by the toxins a smelter, three miles upstream, had carelessly released over decades.
Today the children of Northport know not to swim in the river. Their parents have warned them. Not only have they heard the stories of the toxins in the river, some have witnessed the effects first hand. Watching one or both of their parents suffer from a debilitating autoimmune disease and sadly, despite the care their parents took to protect them, some of these children are already suffering from an autoimmune disease of their own.
The second route of contamination is the air. The smelter has two smoke stacks in which the smoke from the smelting process is released. This air is full of particulate matter, which are microscopically small pieces of matter containing heavy metal toxins.
Northport is located in the deep valley of the Columbia River. This valley influences air dispersion by limiting wind direction along the river, resulting in the prevailing winds carrying toxic smoke from Trail down the Columbia River valley, where a majority of the air becomes “trapped” in the valley walls, where it lingers above the many farms and ranches outside of Northport and in town as well. This is why Northport was nicknamed “The Heavy Fallout Zone” by the EPA.
The amount of sulfur dioxide Teck Cominco was releasing in the air reached such a damaging level in 1933 Northport farmers sued Teck (then Trail Smelter) for the damage they had caused to their livestock and crops, greatly impacting their annual earnings. The air was so polluted crops were visibly burned and the pollutants were killing the animals via the food they ate and the inhalation of the air. The burn line on the trees was still visible well into the 1980’s. Journals a family in Northport kept, written by a family member at the time, summarized that the air was so bad barbwire fences were disintegrating, paint on cars was peeling off, and animals were falling over dead. In 1941, after a drawn out process, the International Joint Commission agreed Teck was liable and ordered them to pay the farmers $34,807.00.
After the lawsuit Teck drastically decreased the amount of sulfur dioxide released in their smoke stacks. However, the heavy metal toxins in their air emissions are still way above safety standards.
According to four air monitoring studies conducted in Northport by the Washington State Department of Ecology between 1993-1998 the levels of arsenic and cadmium were 11.5 times higher than the Acceptable Source Impact Level (ASIL), and 18 times higher than the Risk Based Concentration (RBC) Level.
Teck was instructed to install air monitoring in Northport after the final air monitoring report was published by Ecology in 1998. They have yet to install any air monitors.
Teck knowingly poisoned over three generations of people living in Northport and along the Upper Columbia River, the EPA knowingly withheld this information from us.
Between 1921 – 2005 Teck released:
- 36,465 tons of Zinc
- 22,688 tons of Lead
- 1,225 tons of Arsenic
- 1,103 tons of Cadmium
- 97 tons of Mercury
Between 1906 thru 1995 Teck released:
- 1,314,00 tons of Lead
- 4,434,750 tons of Cadmium
- 302,250 tons of Mercury
- 525,600,000 tons of Zinc
Accidentals Spills / Releases
Between 1906 thru Current:
- Teck failed to report most of their recorded 89 spills of various toxins into the river and air.
- In 1982 Teck accidentally released 6,330 tons of mercury into the Columbia River. It took them five weeks to alert American officials.
Our government agencies, specifically the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), knowingly allowed Teck to operate any way they wanted, having no consequences for their gross negligence and disregard of the environment and human lives.
The EPA investigators were encouraged by their superiors not to find any actual conclusions when investigating the impacts Teck’s pollution had caused to the environment and the health of residents. They were trying to avoid a sticky situation with cross border pollution. So of the multiple studies the EPA, Department of Health (DOH), and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) conducted in the 1990’s, they all concluded that heavy metal toxin levels in the area were above safety standards, but more studies would need to be done. They were dragging their feet, just as they were told to do. The government agencies, created to protect our health and environment, all turned a blind eye to the problem for decades.
The EPA knew under The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), or Superfund, a remedial investigation and feasibility study (RI/FS) would need to be done. Teck refused to cooperate. The EPA issued a Unilateral Administrative Order against Teck, demanding they assist with the RI/FS. Teck ignored the order, and the EPA all but forgot about it. Finally, two members from the Colville Confederated Tribe filed a civil suit against the EPA under CERCLA in 2004. This suit demanded that the EPA enforce their order against Teck. After several court battles, Teck lost it’s last appeal and was forced to cooperate with the EPA to complete a study of the Upper Columbia River. The first phases of the studies began in 2006. After 13 years the remedial investigation (RI) and Human Health Risk Assessment (HHRA) are almost complete.
THE HEALTH ISSUES
Residents in Northport conducted their own community health surveys in 1991 and 2009. As part of the 2009 community survey health questionnaires were distributed to current and past residents of Northport, spanning three generations. More than 500 people completed questionnaires. Per the health cluster guidelines of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the ATSDR, the results collected from the returned questionnaires showed health clusters of; brain aneurysms (23), specific cancers (65), parkinson’s disease/multiple sclerosis (13), thyroid diseases (116), and ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease (54). The DOH had already discovered the health cluster of ulcerative colitis and crohn’s disease in the area in 1992.
All of these diseases can be triggered by chronic, multiple route exposure to the heavy metal toxins released by Teck.The findings of our community health survey caught the attention of Dr. Josh Korzenik, the Director of the Crohn’s and Colitis Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, one of the leading IBD researchers in the nation, and an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School.
In 2011 Dr. Korzenik and his team partnered with Massachusetts General Hospital & Brigham Women’s Hospital to conducted their own in-depth study of the diagnosed cases of Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease in current Northport residents only (past residents were excluded).
Their 2011 study concluded diagnosed cases of ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s Disease in the Northport community were 10 to 15 times higher than national standards. Dr. Korzenik stated, “I’m not aware of any other cluster like it.”
“That’s about 10 to 15 times what we’d expect to see in a population the size of Northport,” said Korzenik, one of the leading IBD researchers in the country. “I’m not aware of any other cluster like it.”
Click here to read more about the ongoing Northport Crohn’s and Colitis studies.
THE LOSING BATTLE
The EPA and the State of Washington need to ensure that Teck continues to move forward with all planned remedial investigations and clean-ups promised under the agreement. A large part of this is to reinstate air monitoring in and around Northport.
However, in 2018, the EPA sided with Teck and decided air monitors were not necessary in and around Northport. This was after the Washington State Department of Ecology’s 2017 Air Quality Assessment of the area concluded several long term air monitors needed to be installed in and around Northport to protect residents from the known elevated exposure to heavy metal toxins, stating; “(The) average airborne PM10 arsenic and lead concentrations in the upper Columbia River valley near the international border are potentially the highest known levels in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Likewise, the average airborne cadmium concentrations are potentially the highest known anywhere in three states.“
The EPA disregarded Ecology’s recommendation, as well as USGS’s. Worse yet, the EPA is conducting the Human Health Risk Assessment (HHRA) of the area without current air monitoring data. The absence of this data will make the HHRA completely unreliable. They also informed the community they would be using an average of toxin levels found in the RI/FS and residential soil sampling in the HHRA. These averages greatly reduce the actual level of toxins Northport residents are exposed to. Not only will the EPA’s HHRA be unreliable, it will be dangerously inaccurate.
The Department of Ecology continues to fight alongside the community for air monitoring. However, with their limited authority and budget, and the towns limited resources, it is a battle we are unlikely to win.
Teck has consistently stated their intention to take every action necessary to clean up the damage caused by the decades of their industrial discharge. They have also consistently appeal all court rulings not in their favor. The money they have spent on lawyers and appeals could have been used towards the remedial investigation and clean up of our area. They are currently appealing the most recent ruling, requiring them to pay impact assessment costs to Colville Tribes.
Why the EPA is conducting the HHRA, without assistance from the DOH or ATSDR, is very concerning. More concerning is the assessments admitted data gaps. The first draft has not even be released for public review yet, but it is safe to say without current, accurate data, it will be another inaccurate, worthless report claiming we are “most likely not in any danger”. And it is probably safe to say that the same health issues will continue to be diagnosed in generations of Northport residents to come.
– Jamie Paparich