For more than 30 years, a small city nestled in the mountains of British Columbia’s West Kootenay region has been working to clean up lead pollution that spewed from the local smelter for almost a century.
Teck Metals has upgraded the smelter, and that led to major improvements, but blood lead levels among local kids are still four times higher than the Canadian average, and internal government documents obtained by Canada’s National Observer through a freedom-of-information request show an estimated 8,000 properties remain contaminated from historic emissions.
Every year, youngsters in Trail, B.C., still have their blood tested for the metal. New parents are given vacuum cleaners and other supplies to help keep tainted dust from building up in their homes, and tips to keep their lawns lush, locking any contaminated soil in place. And the company runs an ongoing program to replace polluted soil from more yards each summer.
Consultations in 2019 and 2020 found there is significant support in Trail for two of the community’s key programs for reducing lead risks. The vast majority of residents surveyed in a 2019 consultation, for instance, said they want to see more soil cleanup in Trail for health reasons as well as esthetics and the potential it could increase property values.
There was also considerable support for Trail’s Healthy Family Healthy Homes program, which offers families with young children home visits from a public health nurse and a professional with their home and garden team to talk about ways to prevent lead exposure. Families who participated in the program said they took steps based on what they learned during those visits to protect their children from lead.
Brefny Raney, a pharmacy assistant in Trail and mom to a toddler, said those visits were helpful, particularly as a first time mom. In an interview, she said she’s not especially concerned about the lead risks today — her daughter’s levels are relatively low — but it is something she’s mindful of, and though Trail has seen major improvements, she doesn’t want the community to become complacent, either.
“We can’t just rest on our laurels,” she said. “It isn’t normal to have a higher lead count.”
While average blood lead levels in Trail are six times lower than they were 30 years ago, health experts say they’re still too high. What’s not clear is the best way to wrestle them down further. It has been more than a decade since the last health risk assessment was done.
That “surprised and disappointed” Dr. Nelson Ames, a retired public health physician, who for years helped guide efforts to reduce the lead risk in Trail.
Previous health studies identified how exactly children were being exposed to the metal and the most effective ways to prevent that exposure.
“What we’ve been doing has worked,” said Ames.
“The question is, what is the risk now?” he said. And, “where do we go from here?”
National Observer made repeated requests for interviews with B.C.’s Health Minister Adrian Dix, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman, as well as a regional medical health officer. All were denied.
In response to emailed questions, a spokesperson for the province said in a statement that the government is working to set the scope for a new independent health assessment led by the Ministry of Health and the Office of the Provincial Health Officer. But officials could not confirm when the study itself will be completed, and with public health efforts focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, the process is facing delays.
In the meantime, Trail is left with uncertainty about the risks of lead exposure in the community today and when exactly historic contamination will be cleaned up.
“This sort of persistent contamination is long-lasting,” said Amanda Giang, an environmental scientist at the University of British Columbia. “Once it happens, its impacts are potentially multigenerational.”
A smelter at the centre of Trail
In Trail, a city of fewer than 8,000 people, the smelter is more than a landmark. It’s embedded in the community’s history and culture: in a nod to the smelter, its stacks feature in the logo of the local hockey team, the Smoke Eaters.
The smelter opened in 1896 to extract metals from ore produced at nearby mines, and as its business boomed, Trail grew up around it.
Today, it’s one of the largest lead zinc smelters in the world, and with more than 1,400 local employees, Teck’s Trail Operations remains the largest private-sector employer in the area. The company’s economic impact in the community extends beyond salaries: in 2019 alone, the Trail Operations spent $218 million on local goods and services and supported 165 charitable organizations, according to Teck.
At the same time, the smelter has been a major source of environmental controversy.
For decades, it released heavy metals into the air and the Columbia River, which flows through Trail and south across the U.S. border. The company has had to pay to clean up contaminated soil in Washington state, and is facing ongoing legal action in the U.S. over water contamination.
While pollution from Teck’s Trail Operations subsided after the company built a new smelter and took other steps to control emissions, it hasn’t stopped entirely.
Just a few years ago, a Provincial Court of British Columbia judge fined Teck $3.4 million for releasing contaminants into the Columbia River between 2013 and 2015.
More recently, in 2019, air-quality monitoring sites in the Trail area were the only sites in the provincial and Metro Vancouver air-monitoring programs to exceed the hourly provincial target for sulphur dioxide, a toxic gas that can cause coughing and wheezing, even after only short-term exposures to elevated levels, according to a BC Lung Association report.
The company refused National Observer’s repeated requests for an interview.
In response to emailed questions, a spokesperson for Teck said there has been a 75 per cent reduction in sulphur dioxide emissions from the smelter over the last couple decades and the company plans to reduce remaining emissions by a quarter over the next three years.
The provincial environment ministry has set progressively tougher sulphur dioxide standards for Teck in the coming years, but the company still isn’t required to meet federal guidelines — that remains a long-term goal, a spokesperson for the ministry said in a statement.
‘Keep the momentum going’
For years, the focus in Trail has been on preventing exposure to lead — and, to a large degree, the community’s effort has been successful.
Teck said it has reduced stack emissions of the metal by 99.5 per cent over the last couple of decades.
Today, the average blood lead level detected in Trail kids between six months and 36 months old is 2.3 micrograms/decilitre — six times lower than it was 30 years ago.
At that level, the effects of lead on an individual child would be “so small as to be unmeasurable,” Ames said.
Trail Mayor Lisa Pasin said she’s happy lead levels declined again last year.
“It’s just so important as a city and a community to keep the momentum going,” she said.
Some kids are still being exposed to concerning levels of lead. At least one child in the area had a blood lead level of 22.7 micrograms/decilitre last year, and more than 10 others had lead levels above five micrograms/decilitre.
At the same time, average levels in Trail remain four times higher than the national average of 0.56 micrograms/decilitre detected among three- to five-year-olds as part of the Canada Health Measures Survey.
Testing a younger group of kids, as the regional health authority does in Trail, is likely to reveal higher blood lead levels, according to Ames, who explained younger children face the greatest likelihood of exposure to lead.
However, the discrepancy between blood levels in Trail and average levels countrywide signal there’s still room to reduce lead exposure in the West Kootenay community — particularly given warnings from health bodies such as the World Health Organization that there is no known safe level of lead.
Babies and young children are most vulnerable to the effects of the metal, which can impact the development of their brains and nervous systems. Even low levels of lead in the blood that cause no obvious symptoms can increase the risk for lower IQs and affect a child’s ability to pay attention.
Raney had her daughter Jessa tested for lead in 2019. Her levels were low enough they didn’t cause Raney much concern, but she plans to have Jessa tested again now that she’s a toddler.
“She’s running around and getting into everything and putting things in her mouth,” she said.
Trail lead study an impetus for action
It was a 1989 study by University of British Columbia researchers that sounded the alarm bells over lead levels in Trail.
As part of that work, 368 children in the area between the ages of two and six were tested for lead.
Blood lead levels ranged from four to 30 micrograms/decilitre, with an average of 13.8.
They were higher than in other parts of the country, and 39 per cent of kids tested above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s level of concern at the time.
“It was one of the most serious health impacts that we’ve ever seen in British Columbia from an environmental problem,” said Calvin Sandborn, the legal director of the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre.
Turning the tap down on pollution from the smelter was key, but the goal was never to close the smelter; Trail relied on it.
“The strategy for Trail was expected to help the smelter and the community continue to coexist by focusing on actions that would be ongoing,” says a 2001 report from the Trail Community Lead Task Force, which formed in the wake of the 1989 study.
Early research revealed contaminated dust and soil tracked inside people’s homes were the main culprits behind elevated blood lead levels and a particular concern for babies and toddlers who tend to put things in their mouths.
So, as the province worked with the company to tackle pollution at the source, the task force developed community programs to help prevent exposure.
Throughout Trail, bare areas were covered with grass and shrubs to help control dust.
Through education campaigns and home visits, people were given advice on how to minimize lead risks, and annual blood lead testing of Trail’s youngest residents started in 1991 to monitor exposure.
For Ames, one of the UBC researchers involved in the 1989 study, the dramatic decline in blood lead levels since then underscores the success of the multifaceted program, which is known today as the Trail Area Health and Environment Program.
Industry towns as far away as Australia have used the program as a model for dealing with their own pollution problems.
Raney knows the benefits of the program first hand. Soon after Jessa was born, a public health nurse visited to talk about ways to reduce lead exposure. Alongside information pamphlets and a sippy cup for Jessa, Raney got a free vacuum and mop to help keep dust from building up in their home.
“It was my first child, and you feel a little overwhelmed, but you want to have a healthy family, and a home visit like that was really great,” Raney said.
The program focuses its work in five areas: family health, air quality, homes and gardens, parks, and property development. It’s overseen by an executive committee chaired by the mayor of Trail with representatives from Interior Health, Teck and the provincial Environment Ministry.
The regional health authority, Interior Health, runs the annual voluntary blood lead testing clinics and, through its family health program, offers home visits from a public health nurse to families with kids under a year old. Last year, 121 children had their blood tested as part of the annual testing clinic — 65 per cent of the 186 kids contacted to participate.
Teck funds work in the other areas, including the home and garden program, which covers soil testing, yard remediation and support for “lead safe” renovations.
While Raney’s yard was previously remediated through the program, she and her daughter recently moved from east to west Trail. Their new home is closer to the smelter, but more affordable.
“It would be nice to not live next to these industrial areas, but right now it’s just not financially feasible,” she said.
Raney said she expects more dust at her new home, which is close to the highway, so she contacted the program again after she moved. “They do provide a lot of services, like cleaning supplies and a vacuum cleaner and a lot of products that you can use to minimize dust accumulation,” Raney said.
“So that was a great benefit to me, especially now I’m a single mum,” she said.
Raney is on the list to have contaminated soil removed from her new vegetable garden and replaced with fresh soil and, in the meantime, was given a sandbox for Jessa to play in and watering supplies to help keep the grass green and the dust tamped down.
According to Mayor Pasin, the program supported well over 100 families last year.
If a child’s blood lead concentrations are five microgram/decilitre or higher, or if they increase by three micrograms/decilitre or more between consecutive annual tests, public health follows up with the family to help determine where the lead is coming from and fix it.
All three of Stephanie Buhler’s sons have in the past tested above that level.
Over the years, the community-led program helped identify and fix sources of lead in the house — everything from old paint to a basement carpet and the soil in their yard.
It also provided helpful tips for reducing lead exposure: “Things like wash your hands and take your shoes off at the door and wash your pets outside … and damp mop often because if you use a damp mop instead of a broom, it doesn’t spread the stuff around,” Buhler explained.
Buhler, who has lived in Trail most of her life, said her kids’ lead levels would have been more concerning if she’d noticed developmental delays.
“My older kids didn’t seem to be behind their peers at all,” she said. “I mean, my 10-year-old gets straight As in school.”
Her youngest has a communication delay, but his doctor doesn’t think lead was a contributing factor, Buhler said, noting that his blood lead levels from 2020 were under five micrograms/decilitre.
“It’s definitely there. You definitely make sure your kids wash their hands before they eat,” she said.
But there’s also a lot to love about Trail, Buhler said, from the mountains that surround it to the sense of community.
That stood out to Ames, as well — the “sense of esprit de corps” in Trail — and it’s something he thinks ultimately contributed to the success of the lead program.
A new smelter helped turn down the tap on pollution
Alongside the community health aspects of the program, the company was working to ratchet down emissions from the smelter.
But the process wasn’t always straightforward. Efforts to upgrade the smelter hit a major snag when a new technology failed and was eventually abandoned in the early 1990s — “millions of dollars turned into scrap metal,” according to Carl Johnson, who retired in 2008 from the provincial Environment Ministry.
Johnson, who had previously worked as an engineer at the smelter, moved over to the provincial government in the late 1970s. His job: get the company to stem the flow of pollution into the local air and water.
“To build a new smelter while you’re still trying to run an old one and shoehorn all the bits and pieces together is a very challenging construction project,” he said. “It took a couple years to do it.”
Finally, in 1997, a new smelter was fired up and the pollution began to subside.
The new smelter reduced stack emissions of lead by about 75 per cent, according to a 2001 report by the Trail lead program.
By 2000, average blood lead levels in Trail kids were half what they were in 1991.
Since then, Teck has built a smelter recycling building to enclose materials and mixing processes that used to happen outside, installed a 10-metre wind fence, as well as wheel and truck washing stations, and began on-site street cleaning — all to control dust.
Since the late 1970s, the company has invested more than $1.7 billion to modernize the operation, a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Is widespread soil remediation the next step?
While Giang, the UBC environmental scientist, said “it’s clear that there was thoughtful design” put into the Trail Area Health and Environment Program, she noted average blood lead levels remain higher in Trail than they are nationwide.
“That really does suggest that there’s still a ways to go and there’s more work to be done,” she said.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the province said the forthcoming health assessment will “evaluate community exposure to current and remaining historical sources of contamination” and “determine if the currently existing and proposed management and mitigation measures to protect the health of the community in Trail are adequate.”
With significant improvements in local air quality, Teck said its priority has shifted to addressing historic soil pollution.
Government records show an estimated 8,000 properties remain contaminated by lead from historic emissions, including 1,200 the government classifies as “high risk.”
In a statement, Teck said it invests about $5 million a year in soil testing and cleanup, prioritizing households with young kids. So far, the company has assessed 1,702 properties, replaced polluted soil in 263 yards and improved the ground cover at 449.
But neither Teck nor the province could say at this point when the cleanup will be completed.
Timelines and targets will be included in what’s called a wide area remediation plan — a plan detailing how Teck will clean up historic contamination from its operations — a spokesperson for the province said in a statement.
That plan will clearly assign liability for the contamination, verify the number of contaminated properties and establish reporting and compliance mechanisms.
It’s still unclear, though, when the plan itself will be finalized — it’s dependent on the results of the health assessment.
Rosa Galvez, an Independent Canadian senator and expert in pollution control, including soil decontamination, said it’s worrying there’s still no timeline for soil remediation in Trail, particularly given the risks of lead to an already vulnerable population: young children.
“We have the knowledge, we have the technology, and we have the moral obligation to repair” the damage that was caused by decades of pollution, she said.
But Ames said it’s an “unanswered question” whether widespread remediation of contaminated soil would significantly reduce lead exposure in Trail.
While the province estimates that about 1,200 properties are “high risk” due to lead concentrations 10 times higher than provincial regulations for residential soil, Ames said the standard is based more on a perceived risk to real estate rather than health.
The actual health risk of contaminated soil varies depending on land use, he explained.
“If it’s a parking lot, risk is pretty low, if it’s a park, the risk is a little higher, if it’s somebody’s backyard, it’s a little higher again,” he said.
The provincial government is working to develop a standard for soil cleanup “that would be most protective of human health and the environment, while still being practical and reasonable to achieve,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
In the meantime, Mayor Pasin said she “strongly encourages” all property owners in Trail to get their soil tested.
“Then if a young family moved in, we would have the testing already done and they could be put in the queue for remediation,” she said.
What’s important, she said, is to remediate those properties that pose a greater risk, particularly where families with toddlers live.
Ultimately, “it’s great that this generation of kids is not going to have that level of lead in their blood” that children were exposed to in the past, said Sandborn, the environmental lawyer.
“But it is a bit of a warning story for the future,” he said. “It’s why it’s so important to apply the precautionary principle when dealing with pollution.”
That’s a take echoed by Giang. Ideally, she said, the focus should be on preventing pollution because in the end, “it’s very hard to unring the bell.”
Despite the daunting challenge of cleaning up industrial pollution, there has been significant progress in Trail — but the work isn’t done yet.
“Teck still needs to work hard,” said Raney.
— With files from Louis Bockner