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Monday, October 19, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Health

River tests raise health concerns

High lead, arsenic levels found along Columbia

Testing is needed to determine if historic smelter pollution poses a health risk to rural residents and tourists in the upper Columbia River Valley, Washington state officials say.

High levels of lead and arsenic were found in soil samples taken from commercial timberlands along the river. A second study found elevated levels of heavy metals in sediments from 10 lakes and wetlands.

The state Department of Ecology paid about $225,000 for both studies. The results indicate that thousands of acres along the upper Columbia Valley were affected by smokestack emissions from Teck Resources’ smelter in Trail, B.C., over the past century, said John Roland, the Ecology Department’s project coordinator for the upper Columbia River.

The highest lead reading was 1,900 parts per million, nearly eight times higher than the state’s threshold for cleanup.

The results raised enough questions that state officials want the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to accelerate testing in rural neighborhoods and at recreation sites in northern Stevens County.

The EPA is working with Teck Resources through a consent decree to define the extent of historic smelter pollution. For nearly a century, the smelter pumped waste into the Columbia River. During the 1920s and ’30s, toxic fumes from the smelter’s stack killed crops in Northeast Washington.

Teck has paid for studies of smelter pollution in the Columbia and along the river’s banks. A second round of those studies will kick off this fall, said Rick Albright, the EPA’s director of the Office of Environmental Cleanup in Seattle.

“Our first focus has been on the river,” Albright said.

But the EPA is talking to Teck officials about additional sampling work next year. Albright said the findings from the state’s study will help guide that discussion.

Some residences and businesses around Northport, Wash., have already had their yards tested for heavy metals and replaced with clean dirt, Roland said. The state wants the new round of testing to take place in rural residences north of Northport to the Canadian border, and at popular recreation sites.

In the meantime, people in northern Stevens County should take commonsense precautions to avoid exposure to heavy metals, Roland said. That includes washing hands before meals or after working or playing outside; avoiding tracking dirt indoors; and frequent mopping, dusting and vacuuming.

The precautions are especially important for families with children 6 and younger, he said. Lead is a neurotoxin that affects children’s development.

Both of the state studies were conducted last year. More than 120 soil samples were taken from commercial forestlands within 2 miles of the U.S.-Canada border. The study area encompassed about 15 square miles, including land on both sides of the Columbia River.

The second study tested sediments from lakes and wetlands in the Upper Columbia Valley.

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