Residents along the Sumas River are divided over the potential health risks of high levels of naturally occurring, cancer-causing asbestos left behind in yards and homes by landslides from floods in January 2009.

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NOOKSACK, Whatcom County —

Even before the health regulators in white moon suits arrived to rake their yards, residents along the Sumas River were arguing over how much to fret about contamination.

It began with the floods, in January 2009. When swollen waters spread across farmers’ fields and into basements, the muddy torrent deposited something disturbing: extraordinarily high concentrations of cancer-causing asbestos.

Emergency health warnings went out, and one anxious family left town, abandoning its home and business in a panic. Others insisted that concerns were overblown. Off-road vehicle tracks appeared in a dry asbestos-laden creek right next to a sign detailing the cancer risks of kicking up dust.

Teasing out the odds of contracting health problems from environmental contamination is a tricky business. The asbestos issues along the Sumas reveal how tenuous a grasp on it we sometimes still have.

Scientists can’t yet tell how many ways people might get exposed, and the absence of hard data leaves disease experts struggling to characterize the danger. That lack of clarity, in turn, has led some residents to make painful choices.

“We spent five months cleaning up the muck from that flood before we knew what was in it,” said former resident Cherie Cummings, who said she couldn’t sell her house before fleeing the asbestos in her yard. A foreclosure notice is now posted to her door. “I had my kids out there working in it every day! There’s no telling how much I exposed them to.”

Contamination of the Sumas isn’t a calamity on the scale of Libby, Mont., where the deaths of some 400 vermiculite miners and their family members have been linked to asbestos. In fact, most asbestos-related diseases are the result of mining, demolition or factory work.

There’s no evidence anyone who lives along the Sumas River has gotten sick. It’s still possible no one ever will.

But workers who handle industrial material containing 1 percent asbestos are usually required to wear masks. And the caky flood deposits left behind in yards along the river all the way to Canada showed levels of asbestos as high as 27 percent.

Asbestos-related diseases are caused by repeated inhalation, so the amount of microscopic fibers found in dirt means little — unless you can show how much of it people are breathing. So, concerned researchers in protective gear were out late last month trying to gauge the threat by taking air samples while replicating everyday activities — from raking and lawn-mowing to weed-whacking or simply walking.

“The levels of asbestos here are really high,” said toxicologist Julie Wroble, who is leading field work for the Environmental Protection Agency. “There’s so much it’s almost like a product — like someone put it here on purpose.”

And that, for many, is the real kicker:

This asbestos wasn’t culled from a mine or landfill and didn’t leach from some toxic-waste site. It wasn’t even produced by humans. It’s naturally occurring, released by a slow-moving landslide, which is expected to churn out trouble for another 400 years.

With no corporate or government villain, there’s no deep pocket to foot the bill for cleanup.

You can’t sue Mother Nature.

So many unknowns

Asbestos is found in roofing and siding, brake linings, insulation and other fire retardants. It’s also as common in nature as a rock.

It’s a form of several minerals found throughout the world, including in parts of the North Cascades. The rocks are harmless until crushed into fine dust that releases microscopic asbestos fibers. Inhaling too many of the wrong kind and size of these fibers over long periods can lead to lung-scarring asbestosis, lung cancer and fatal mesothelioma, a rare cancer.

What’s happening in this pocket of northwest Washington began in the 1930s, when heavy rain reactivated a massive slide on Sumas Mountain. Eventually the slide ground away a particular type of rock, generating asbestos fibers. The landslide dumps up to 120,000 cubic yards of material each year into Swift Creek, which feeds the Sumas River.

No one knows how much of that material contains asbestos, or how long fibers have been getting into the creek. But when scientists sampled the creek’s banks in 2006, the results alarmed health experts.

No government standard exists for how much asbestos is safe in dirt, but the banks of Swift Creek contained up to 4 percent asbestos, and averaged 1.7 percent. The banks, a popular spot for hiking, horseback riding and dirt-biking, were formed by crumbled rocks dredged regularly from the creek to prevent flooding. For years people have hauled away the spoils for use as yard and driveway fill.

No one kept records of where it all went.

“We have no idea if kids for years have been driving their Big Wheels up and down driveways full of this stuff,” Wroble said.

The county warned people to avoid Swift Creek and banned the use of its dredge spoils. State Department of Health experts reviewed years of cancer data and were relieved to find occurrences of lung diseases, including mesothelioma, were no greater here than in the population as a whole.

But asbestos-related diseases take decades to surface, and no one knows if asbestos began raining into Swift Creek in the 1930s — or more recently.

“We’re glad we’re not seeing sickness, but there are a lot of uncertainties,” said Jeff Hegedus, an environmental supervisor with the Whatcom County Health Department. “It’s a small population, statistically speaking. People move in and out of the area. Not everyone lives here for 40 years.”

County, state and federal agencies began meeting in 2006 with Swift Creek’s neighbors, urging them to limit exposure to airborne dust. But they acknowledged permanently controlling the problem could cost tens of millions of dollars and there is no obvious place to get the money.

“One of the problems we have is that it’s a potentially serious situation now, and we don’t know how serious it may get in the future,” said Elly Hale, a project manager with the EPA.

Then came the 2009 floods.

Neighbors divided

Stay or go. What do you do when nature poisons your yard — and promises to do so over and again?

When Cherie Cummings and her husband and children moved north of Nooksack in 2006, they established a bed-and-breakfast and you-pick vegetable and flower farm. They kept chickens and goats and geese and a peacock, on several acres along the tiny Sumas.

But on Jan. 7, 2009, the rising river swallowed their south lawn. Water poured into their home through a basement window. The propane tank for the cottage floated away. Receding waters left behind a weird, white mud.

“It filled in our pond, covered our lawn and the flower beds on the south side of the property,” Cummings recalled. “Much of the rest of the land had a few inches of the white sediment. It was like a snowstorm — the stuff was everywhere.”

She cleaned up and reopened the business in late spring, but then the EPA came by and asked to take samples. Results came back and Cummings was devastated. Samples on and near her property ranged from 3 to 11 percent asbestos. Similar — often higher — readings were found on property all the way to the Canadian border.

The county took a sample from Cummings’ basement. It, too, contained asbestos.

Cummings felt she had to get away. She didn’t want her kids living in that environment. But real-estate agents said her home was unsellable. Her homeowners and flood insurance wouldn’t pay because her buildings were not damaged. The state wouldn’t declare her home a public health threat — there wasn’t enough information about risks.

“We discovered that when you’re dealing with asbestos, no one has authority to help you move for good,” she said.

Cummings drafted fliers and took them to field hands in nearby farms, warning that they might be working around asbestos. She frustrated and irritated her neighbors, few of whom shared her view that this was a crisis.

“I think they were just looking for an excuse to bail,” said Nooksack Mayor Jim Ackerman, who, at 65, has lived near the Sumas since childhood. He, like many others, maintains that tilling over or burying asbestos in the yard probably is enough to resolve health risks.

“The government’s got people up here in suits and masks; it looks like the Martians have landed,” he said. “That’s overkill. I don’t want to make light of it, but the agencies have people scared. I know a guy who is 80 years old and ornery as hell and he’s been living next to Swift Creek for years. And he’s fine.”

None of that changed Cummings’ mind.

“We were called stupid,” she said. “We were called irrational. I didn’t make friends, for sure, but this seemed important.”

EPA officials wrote letters on her behalf, documenting what they’d found. The Federal Emergency Management Administration offered temporary rental assistance, but only because the flood had been formally declared a disaster.

So Cummings abandoned her property, ruined her credit, busted her savings and moved to Oregon. She hasn’t been back since.

“We didn’t want to walk away,” Cummings said. “But we just didn’t want our children living around that stuff.”

Falling property values

Health officials won’t say whether Cummings overreacted. Decisions to move are far too personal, they said. Plus, county, state and federal agencies are still gathering information. It’s not even clear that all the experts agree with one another.

“We try to give people the best information we can without speculating,” said Karen Larson, with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

Hegedus, with Whatcom County Health, saw polar reactions when trying to inform people about the risk: “People tended to see what they wanted to see,” he said.

Some worried mostly about money. It could be years before health risks are understood. And even if those risks are eventually deemed minimal, the economic consequences still could be staggering.

Contamination played a role in Whatcom County’s decision to scale back Nooksack’s proposed urban-growth boundary. The county assessor is reducing property valuations based on known asbestos contamination. Riverfront home sales, already anemic, have dried up.

Hegedus insists residents can adequately limit exposure by following a few simple protocols: Cover asbestos sediment with new topsoil or landscaping; spray down gardens before digging; dust with a wet cloth; mop rather than sweep floors; vacuum basements using high-efficiency vacuums.

Hale, at EPA, said she understands why some still worry. “What makes this particularly problematic is that the material is coming right to them,” she said. Besides, “You can’t control where the cat is digging in your yard.”

Wroble said she lives in fear of getting a phone call years from now informing her that a Sumas resident has mesothelioma.

For now, ATSDR plans a yearlong monitoring program, and Whatcom County’s public-works division hopes to find a way to erect a temporary fix. Workers wanted to install a series of ponds near the slide’s base, hoping some portion of the asbestos would settle out before water rushes into the creek and downstream.

But there’s no telling how well that would work, and costs and liability already have stalled efforts to get some of that work started.

In the meantime, “No one as yet has envisioned a permanent solution,” Hegedus said.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or