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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

EPA declines to test air downwind of lead smelter in British Columbia

FILE – The Cominco smelter complex above the Columbia River in Trail, B.C. photographed on June 5, 2009. The smelter sends heavy metals and other byproducts of the smelting process downstream into Washington. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The state of Washington will look for money to conduct air quality monitoring downwind of a Canadian smelter after the federal government declined to restart the testing.

Trail, British Columbia, is home to one of the world’s largest lead and zinc smelters and refineries. The community of Northport, Washington, is about 20 miles south of the smelter.

Two years of air monitoring would cost about $300,000. The state Department of Ecology will look into options for funding the work, including grants or agency funding, said Brook Beeler, an Ecology spokeswoman.

More than 100 local residents sent a petition to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in December, asking the agency to install air monitors from Northport to the U.S.-Canadian border.

The petition came after state modeling indicated Teck Resources Ltd.’s smelter could be sending the highest known airborne levels of arsenic and lead in Washington, Idaho and Oregon over the border.

Air quality monitoring hasn’t been conducted on the Washington side of the border since 2009.

So, state Department of Ecology officials used six years of data from British Columbia’s government to project levels of heavy metals crossing the border from 2009 to 2014.

Average lead and arsenic levels modeled at the international border and in Northport were several times higher than the Northwest’s next-largest reading, which was taken in an industrial area of Seattle. The modeling also indicated elevated levels of cadmium.

The heavy metals in the emissions wouldn’t pose a short-term risk to Northport-area residents, but long-term inhalation could increase cancer risks, according to the Department of Ecology.

The Northeast Tri-County Health District also supports the monitoring to determine whether a public health risk is present.

EPA officials, however, disagree that additional monitoring is needed.

“From our evaluation of data collected in 1999 to 2009, we believe that the risk to you from the outdoor air in Northport is low,” wrote Cami Grandinetti, a manager in EPA’s remedial cleanup program, in an April letter.

Based on additional improvements at the smelter, “we expect current day operations to be even lower,” Grandinetti said in the letter.

Teck has spent more than $1.5 billion modernizing the Trail smelter since the mid-1990s. Company officials recently said they’ve reduced air and water emissions by more than 95 percent.

About 45 people attended a meeting with EPA officials Thursday night in Northport.