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Cleaning up contaminated soils in Grays Harbor

In order to protect our way of life

Many toxic sites are the legacy from heavy industry of the past including mining, milling, boat building and manufacturing. Much of this toxic pollution was left in our midst years ago, before we knew the impact and before laws were passed that prohibited dumping chemicals on our land, water, or in unlined landfills.

Contaminated sites are widespread

Right now, in Washington State, there are over 12,500 known or suspected properties that are contaminated with toxic chemicals. These chemicals are in the groundwater, soil, and/or sediment. Typical contaminants include petroleum, metals, solvents, and highly toxic chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins and furans. Some toxic sites are contaminating our air.

Cleanup at many of these sites is relatively simple, such as at a gas station with leaking underground storage tanks. Others are complex, such as a shuttered industrial site that left behind a cocktail of long-lived, highly toxic chemicals that flowed into the groundwater or sediments.

Washington’s environmental cleanup law is the Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA). It protects our health by allocating funds to direct the investigation and cleanup of contaminated sites. A hallmark of MTCA is a prescribed cleanup process that includes identifying and evaluating alternative approaches. It also creates opportunities for people to submit comments and learn about proposed cleanup alternatives. About 6,600 hazardous sites have been cleaned up under the MTCA process so far.

The estuary is where all the water ends up – and it ends up taking in discharges from cleanup sites, wastewater treatment plant outfalls, stormwater discharge pipes, sheet runoff, and agricultural runoff.

How MTCA got started

In 1980, a Federal “Superfund” law was passed to clean up hazardous waste sites. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) gave the Environmental Protection Agency authority to seek out the parties responsible for contamination and assure their cooperation in the cleanup. It also required states to identify contaminated sites.

MTCA is sometimes known as Washington State’s cleanup law. In Washington, MTCA originated from citizens’ Initiative 97 and became law in 1989. Its key provisions are that cleanups should be as permanent as possible, that the polluter pays the costs, and that public participation is essential. MTCA establishes a tax on hazardous substances, including petroleum, pesticides, and other chemicals to pay for these processes.

The Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) receives MTCA funds to implement and enforce MTCA. Ecology’s team of site managers, toxicologists, engineers, and hydrogeologists manage most of the cleanups in Washington. Ecology also manages several grant programs that help local governments clean up contaminated sites, as well as grant programs that provide funds to non-governmental organizations to promote public participation and awareness of contaminated sites and pollution problems.

Grays Harbor County and the Chehalis Watershed

Within the city limits of Aberdeen and Hoquiam, there are over 150 MTCA contaminated sites, most of which have not been cleaned up, nor have cleanup processes started. Most of these sites were listed because of leaks associated with underground storage and heating oil tanks. In some cases, Ecology allows the least complicated sites to be cleaned up under a voluntary process (VCP). Sites with complex contamination must be cleaned up under MTCA. The most contaminated sites are rated from 1 to 5 for environmental and human health risk, where 1 has the greatest human and environmental risk. There are about 10 sites in the Grays Harbor area with a rating of 1. For most of these sites, authorities have not begun the cleanup process.

Here in the Harbor, we live on an estuary. Many of us depend on the water for jobs, food, and commerce. Many of us recreate and live here because of the abundant fish, shellfish and water resources. Contaminated sites affect our health and the environment, and limit economic growth in many industrial areas.

Discharges flow into our estuary

Because of our position on the land, we receive all the water from the 123-mile long Chehalis River watershed, as well as other rivers. The estuary is where all the water ends up – and it ends up taking in discharges from cleanup sites, wastewater treatment plant outfalls, stormwater discharge pipes, sheet runoff, and agricultural runoff. In order to protect our way of life, it behooves us all to learn about water quality, contribute to cleanup site processes, and above all – adopt behaviors that help keep our water clean.

High-risk sites awaiting clean-up in Grays Harbor include the following:

Dike Access Road Repair IDD1 is a 45-acre site along the waterfront in the City of Hoquiam.  It is bounded by the Chehalis River on the south, the Hoquiam River on the east, Puget Sound & Pacific Railroad on the north, and a vacant log yard to the west.  Past uses at IDD1 indicate that a shingle mill operated here, with associated kilns and fuel storage tanks. A 1928 map shows buildings on piles, with surrounding areas filled with refuse, with fuel and fish oil tanks and a refuse burner nearby.  In the 1970s, navigation channel dredge spoils were deposited on the site. Contaminants at this site include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and dioxin in soil, arsenic and metals in groundwater. Proposed future uses include creating tidal channels to serve as wetland mitigation for fill at a proposed potash facility.  No cleanup activities have begun yet. The site will have to be cleaned up prior to use for wetland mitigation.

Butchers Scrap Metal is a 1.6-acre site located at 1313 Western Avenue in Hoquiam.  Past uses at this site included wrecking and scrap yard activities.  A large area of the site was estimated to have been potentially impacted by used oil spilled onto the ground.  Soil sampling yielded extremely high levels of heavy oil, well above the Model Toxic Control Act (MTCA) standard.  Little work has been done at this site since June of 2004, and the site is awaiting a further investigation, called a Site Hazard Assessment, and cleanup.

The Lambs Grays Harbor site is an 84-acre site in the City of Hoquiam. This site is a former machinery manufacturing facility for pulp and paper equipment. Multiple above and below ground fuel tanks containing fuel oil, diesel, leaded gasoline, and Bunker C oil were decommissioned with no environmental assessment completed before closure.  The site has confirmed soil (metals priority pollutants, other reactive wastes, and petroleum products) as well as confirmed groundwater contamination.   The site is awaiting cleanup.

Moving to clean up a contaminated industry site

Success is possible. One important site on the Harbor is undergoing the MTCA process. At the Weyerhaeuser Sawmill Aberdeen/Seaport Landing Site, sawmill operations and forest product industry practices contaminated soil, sediment and groundwater. A public meeting was recently held, and the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority will use past investigations and close data gaps to conduct additional studies and develop a cleanup action plan. These cleanups are thorough and take many years to complete.

Lee First is the Twin Harbors Waterkeeper. Waterkeepers around the world work for fishable, drinkable, swimmable water. This op-ed was funded by WA Department of Ecology Public Participation Grant, but was not necessarily endorsed by the Department


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