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Thursday, October 22, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

B.C. smelter spewed heavy metals into Upper Columbia River valley

Smokestacks from a Canadian smelter deposited high levels of lead and arsenic into the Upper Columbia River valley, new soil testing has confirmed.

To protect children from lead exposure, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will begin cleaning up rural properties near Northport, Washington, where young children and pregnant women live, said Laura Buelow, an EPA project manager. The goal is to get the properties cleaned up quickly, though it’s still unclear how many will need soil removal, she said.

Teck Resources owns the smelter in Trail, British Columbia, that released the heavy metals during a century of operations. Past studies have focused on the smelter’s releases of mercury and other pollution into the Columbia River. This testing looked at airborne releases of heavy metals from the smelter’s smokestacks.

The EPA tested 74 rural properties between the U.S.-Canada border and the town of Northport. According to test results, 32 properties had soil samples with lead levels above Washington state’s cleanup threshold of 250 parts per million. Some properties also had elevated arsenic levels.

The results confirmed earlier testing by the Department of Ecology. In 2013, the state tested commercial timberlands near the Canadian border and lakes and wetlands for heavy metals. One lead reading was 1,900 parts per million, nearly eight times higher than the state’s cleanup threshold.

As a result of those tests, state officials plan to ask the EPA to speed up testing of rural residential properties.

The studies are part of ongoing work to identify whether historic smelter pollution poses risks to public health and the environment. The EPA will seek reimbursement from Teck Resources for the cost of the soils cleanup, Buelow said.

Lead is the metal of highest concern because of the risks it poses to child development, she said. Lead exposure has been linked to decreased IQ, increased blood pressure, anemia and stunted growth.

Lead in soils gets tracked into houses, where children of crawling age ingest it through hand-to-mouth contact.

Matt Wolohan, who lives north of Northport, received testing results for his property earlier this month. The letter from the EPA had unwelcome news, he said: Soil samples from his orchard and a site near the Columbia River had elevated lead levels.

Wolohan is a member of Citizens for a Clean Columbia, an advocacy group that has been pushing for testing and cleanup of the smelter pollution for two decades. Even though he doesn’t have young children, Wolohan said the elevated metals levels on his land are still a health concern.

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