Northport, WA: Researching Illness on the Upper Columbia River

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). Their blog, https://northportproject.com/, maintained by local activist Jamie Paparich, chronicles TECK’s activities and the community’s efforts to determine the consequences for Northport. The blog reports on a recent community health study by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard School of Medicine which concluded that “cases of Colitis and Crohn’s diagnosed in Northport residents were 11.5 to 15 times higher than in the general population.” According to the Northport Project website, the researchers say this is the largest IBD cluster they have ever seen. A follow-up study is planned for fall 2016.

Northport is located in a valley along the Columbia River, just a few miles south of the U.S.-Canada border. It’s a beautiful area, with rolling green hills, broad pastures, and gorgeous views. In the early 20th century, the Northport Smelter was located here, but it closed in 1922. But as we learned, Northport and its neighbors struggle with the impacts of a century of waste materials dumped into the Columbia River and emitted through its stacks by another smelter, TECK (formerly TECK COMINCO). Arsenic, lead, cadmium and other heavy metals have been found in area soils. In 1999 the Colville Confederated Tribes, whose lands are not far from Northport, requested that the EPA assess contamination in the Upper Columbia River. In 2001 the EPA agreed to conduct preliminary assessments and site inspections at 39 mine and mill sites, including sites in Northport. After finding higher than normal amounts of heavy metals in Northport’s soil, they returned in 2004 to offer yard testing and soil replacement to Northport residents. The Washington State Department of Ecology was designated to advise the EPA on technical issues and environmental clean-up requirements. The State Department of Health was also supposed to review findings that could impact community health (https://yosemite.epa.gov/R10/CLEANUP.NSF/9f3c21896330b4898825687b007a0f33/f19e164188a9e53088256e170008610d/$FILE/leroi%20FAQs.pdf).

This process also found hazardous waste contamination in Upper Columbia River sediments, including cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, zinc, dioxins and furans, and fish advisories were issued for a variety of Columbia River species.

In 2005 the Colville Confederated Tribes, joined by the EPA and the State of Washington, sued TECK for damages to the Columbia River caused by a century of dumping waste materials (slag). The suit was finally concluded in 2012, when Judge Lonny Suko of the U.S. District Court in Yakima ruled that TECK is liable under U.S. environmental law. In his ruling, the Judge stated, “for decades TECK leadership knew its slag and effluent flowed…downstream…but neverthleless TECK continued discharging wastes into the Columbia River.” The EPA has already begun clearing polluted sediments, but the suit gives the U.S. agency the power to force TECK to fund the cleanup (http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/colville-tribes-win-long-running-environmental-lawsuit-against-teck-metals-183585251.html).

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 (https://fortress.wa.gov/ecy/gsp/Sitepage.aspx?csid=2036). 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 inflamation 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.

The Northport Project website chronicles the attempts by the Washington State Department of Ecology and the EPA to monitor and curb Teck’s emissions. One concern raised by Northport activists is that air monitoring tests conducted by the Department of Ecology from 1992-98 showed elevated levels of arsenic and cadmium. Jamie reports that Teck obtained a new permit “based on the condition that TECK continued to monitor Northport’s air quality and update Ecology quarterly.” But, she adds, “If TECK has an air monitor, in or near, Northport, they are not sharing the data with anyone.” The Northport researchers have since discovered that TECK maintained a monitor in Northport until 2006. The results show that arsenic and cadmium continued to be “way above safety standards and risk-based concentrations.” (for further information, please see: “Air Monitoring in Northport, parts I, II and III” on the Northport Project website.

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.

To learn more about Northport, see:

The Northport Project: https://northportproject.com/

“Superfund: US law’s reach at heart of epic cross-border cleanup fight”  Jeremy Jacobs, November 24, 2015  www.eenews.net/stories/1060028510

“Study shows elevated rate of bowel disease in Washington town downstream of B.C.’s Trail Smelter”  Larry Pynn, Vancouver Sun August 14 2012

www.vancouversun.com/health/Study+shows+elevated+rate+bowel+disease+Washington+town+downstream+Trail+smelter/7096684/story.html


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