Six Washington residents who blame their chronic health problems on a Canadian smelter’s industrial pollution can continue their lawsuit against the smelter’s owner, a federal judge ruled this week.
The plaintiffs are current or former residents of Northport, Washington, which is about 15 miles downwind and downriver of Teck Metals Ltd.’s smelter in Trail, British Columbia. The smelter dumped millions of tons of waste containing heavy metals into the Columbia River over nearly 100 years, and blew more pollutants out of its smokestacks.
In the 2013 lawsuit, the residents said their illnesses – stomach cancer, breast cancer and inflammatory bowel diseases – are linked to high exposures of heavy metals released by the smelter, including cadmium, lead and mercury.
A Harvard Medical School researcher reported a cluster of 17 cases of inflammatory bowel disease in a health survey of 119 current and former Northport residents.
“That’s about 10 to 15 times what we’d expect to see in a population the size of Northport,” Dr. Josh Korzenik, director of the Crohn’s and Colitis Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told The Spokesman-Review in 2012.
Teck Metals sought to have the potential class-action lawsuit dismissed. In court documents, Teck attorneys argued that the six plaintiffs couldn’t show a direct link between their health problems and the smelter’s pollution. The plaintiff’s illnesses were diagnosed 20 to 30 years ago, which is beyond the statute of limitations for bringing a suit, the attorneys said.
But in a Monday ruling, Senior U.S. District Judge Lonny Suko said the suit can continue, which will allow the plaintiffs to request company documents in an effort to support their claims. They must prove to the court that the case meets the requirements for class-action litigation.
The plaintiffs are represented by Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, a Seattle law firm specializing in class-action suits, which previously challenged Idaho grass growers over field burning.
Barbara Anderson, of Northport, was the original plaintiff in the Teck lawsuit. The case was later amended to include five others: Michael Buffan, Spokane Valley; Gail Leaden, Spokane; Travis Magers, Deer Park; and Rhett Weilep and Leigh Williams, both of Kettle Falls.
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