Clifford Ward lives near Northport, Washington, a town of about 300 people in forested area along the upper Columbia River.
Despite its remote location, the city is downwind from a large industrial operation. About 15 miles to the north in Trail, British Columbia, Teck Resources Ltd. runs one of the world’s largest integrated lead and zinc smelters and refineries.
Modeling done by the state Department of Ecology indicated the smelter could be sending the highest known airborne levels of arsenic and lead in Washington, Oregon and Idaho over the international border.
In December, Ward and more than 100 other local residents petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to install air monitors from Northport to the border.
“I think we have the right to know what it is that we may or may not be breathing,” said Ward, a board member of Citizens for a Clean Columbia, a local activist group.
Both the state of Washington and the local Northeast Tri-County Health District support the monitoring, but EPA officials haven’t made a decision.
“We are still reviewing it,” said Mark MacIntyre, an EPA spokesman in Seattle.
The Teck smelter has operated for more than a century. It’s better known for its historic releases of pollution into the Columbia River, which is the subject of ongoing litigation against the company by the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the state.
Chad Pederson, a Teck Resources spokesman, said the company has spent more than $85 million on studies to determine if historical disposal practices at the Trail smelter have caused unacceptable risks to human health or the environment. The studies are being conducted with EPA oversight.
The Department of Ecology’s modeling, however, looks at the smelter’s projected air emissions for more recent years. Air quality monitoring hasn’t been conducted on the Washington side of the border since 2009.
Ecology officials used six years of air monitoring data from British Columbia’s government to project levels of heavy metal crossing the border between 2009 and 2014.
“It predicts what may be occurring in Washington state, since we don’t have current data sets,” said John Roland, the state’s Upper Columbia site project manager.
Average lead levels modeled at the U.S.-Canadian border were about seven times higher than the Northwest’s next-largest reading, which was taken in an industrial area of Seattle near the Duwamish River. In the city of Northport, projected lead levels were three times as high as the Seattle reading.
Average arsenic levels modeled at the border were about three times as high as the Seattle levels. In Northport, projected arsenic levels are about twice as high as the Seattle reading.
The modeling effort also projected elevated cadmium levels, but a Portland air quality monitor next to an art-glass foundry had recorded higher levels.
The projected metals crossing the border are measured in micrograms per cubic meter. While they wouldn’t pose a short-term health risk to local residents, long-term inhalation could increase people’s risk of getting cancer, according to the Department of Ecology.
Based on the smelter’s sheer size, it’s not surprising it would be the region’s largest emitter of airborne metals, said Roland.
Roland said the state wants a say in designing any future air monitoring that occurs in the Northport area. Since the smelter now accepts some types of electronic waste for recycling, the list of metals monitored may need to be expanded, he said.
Teck officials, however, dispute the need for air quality monitoring in the Northport area.
“Ecology’s request for renewed air monitoring in the U.S. misunderstands the data Teck reports to the B.C. government, as well as (the) Trail operations modern compliance history,” Pederson, the company spokesman, said in an email.
Teck has spent more than $1.5 billion in modernizing the Trail smelter since the mid-1990s. Pederson said the investments have improved operations and reduced air and water emissions by more than 95 percent.
Northport residents need ongoing air monitoring, said Jamie Paparich, whose family owns property north of town. Without the data, people won’t know if they’re currently being exposed to risky levels of metals, she said.
The Northeast Tri-County Health District takes a similar position, said Matt Schanz, the administrator. Though Teck has substantially reduced its emissions, airborne arsenic and lead levels are a public health issue, he said.
“It’s really important that we understand the impacts on our own side of the border,” Schanz said.