To labor to heal the earth with no direct compensation is the great work of our generation, based on morality, law, and treaty. There is nothing more infuriating and humiliating than were our efforts to be undermined by the very governments obligated to support and protect our work.“ Paul Cereghino
For the sixth time, the City of Olympia is considering an application to build 181 houses at the old Sundberg Mine site on Cooper Pt. Rd NW between 20th and 28th Ave, just two years since the last proposal. In its present incarnation as “Green Cove Park,” the proposed development is attracting opposition from neighbors concerned with traffic and schools, but the issue goes deeper than these concerns—at least 30 feet deeper to the waste pits that have been documented by the developer’s own geotechnical review.
Wood waste, contrary to what one might believe, is neither biodegradable nor harmless.
The question everyone wants answered is what is in these pits, buried under compacted soil, and what effect the contents have on surrounding wells, groundwater aquifers and the Green Cove Creek Basin. So far, no one—not the City, the County, or the Department of Ecology—has conducted testing sufficient to answer those questions. The results of such tests could be devastating.
A history of flouting the law
An inspection of 300 Department of Natural Resources (DNR) documents obtained through a Public Disclosure Request reveals that the site has been in violation of state law continually since at least 1984. Neighbors have complained to the City and County for more than 20 years about illegal dumping at the site. The list of violations repeats over many years—lack of boundary markers, mining outside of and deeper than the permitted boundaries, inadequate setbacks, imported unknown fill on-site that cannot be used for reclamation, stormwater ditches outside the permitted area, the likely piercing of perched aquifers, large amounts of woody debris, and the absence of any reclamation activity or re-vegetation.
A failure of enforcement duties
Despite continuous warnings from DNR that the site was out of compliance and should either be expanded to reflect the actual mining operation or be reclaimed, nothing was ever done. State law explicitly requires that reclamation of mine sites be completed not more than two years after completion or abandonment. DNR never took enforcement action despite the fact that the law allows the Department to reclaim such mines at owner’s expense. One DNR staffer lamented in 1998 “…have been trying to convince Ted [Sundberg] for several years to reclaim, but this site is his hobby.”
A long-standing dumping ground for wood waste
The Sundberg property also served purposes other than mining. It was widely known in the area as the log yard for the Port of Olympia, though there is no record of this because this use was never permitted. However, a July, 1972 DNR document noted that County staff had told DNR there was “no need for a limited use permit for log yard or gravel operation as both were existing uses at the time Interim Zoning was adopted.” Aerial photos from 1972 show large piles of logs stored east of the mine site. DNR acknowledges that the site served as a log dump from 1983-1987. Inspections from 1984, 1988, 1989, 1993, 1997, and 1998 note large amounts of woody debris that DNR staff explicitly state should not be buried; debris that would need to be removed before reclamation could occur. As late as 2014 when the property was in the hands of current owner, Jerry Mahan, DNR staff reported, “I witnessed illegal dumping of wood waste occurring while on site… Dumping is also occurring in front of the access gate.”
Wood waste, contrary to what one might believe, is neither biodegradable nor harmless. Large pits full of rotting organic matter present a potential danger of methane gas infiltrating homes and roads. This opens the City to liability when streets crack and degrade and when homeowners experience toxic, possibly explosive vapors and foundation damage to their homes.
A likelihood of contamination
If much of the wood waste on site originated at the Port of Olympia or other nearby industrial sites on Budd Inlet, it would likely have been wood pressure-treated with creosote or other toxic preservative chemicals. For example, the Cascade Pole Company, which operated a wood-treatment facility on property leased from the Port of Olympia from 1957 to 1986, left a legacy of dioxin contamination the Port is still working to clean up. Where else did that toxic waste go?
The Sundberg mine is a short 4-minute drive to the largest toxic waste site in South Sound. The Budd Inlet cleanup program identified 11 sites where “…contamination came from historical industrial practices that preceded modern environmental laws.” DNR reported large amounts of waste and woody debris being dumped in 1984 and later. In addition, credible eyewitness accounts from long-term neighbors report truckloads of waste entering the site over many years. Even the 2015 geotechnical report submitted by the developer describes test pits full of woody debris, organic-laced fill, garbage, gravel and sand that terminate at a depth of 8 feet due to large logs. Based on the contours of the test pits, the amount of waste buried could be estimated to be as much as 325,000 tons.
An inexplicable clean bill of health
Considering that the largest cost for owners stuck with remediation of toxic sites is offsite disposal of toxic materials, a reasonable person would conclude that development of this site poses “significant risk of adverse environmental impact.” Incredibly, the Department of Ecology (ECY) has apparently concluded that only innocuous construction debris is in the backfill. ECY declared the site closed—based on 4 investigations paid for by the developer that merely skimmed the surface of a large body of fill material. ECY’s sole action was to verify the removal of an underground storage tank. They did not address any concerns raised about unregulated disposal.
An aquifer threatened
Besides the obvious dangers to anyone living on top of an unpermitted and unregulated potentially toxic landfill, there is another critical aspect to this proposal. The site sits on top of an extreme aquifer recharge area, as delineated in the 1998 Green Cove Basin Comprehensive Plan adopted by the City and County.
Stormwater runoff from the Sundberg site empties into Budd Inlet through Butler Creek, and into Eld Inlet through Green Cove Creek. Contamination of the aquifer at this site will affect the groundwater for miles around, threatening people’s wells and City wells in the area.
Jim Elliott (recently deceased), whose family homesteaded the property before selling it to Sundberg in 1938, tried for decades to get City, County and State agencies to clean up the site. He was well aware of the continuity of the hydrology underlying the area when pumps for a new development in the City caused his well to run dry.
A violation of Federal and tribal requirements
Because the runoff enters Federally protected waters, it also violates tribal treaty rights and Federal law that requires the responsible jurisdiction to conduct thorough testing for toxicity on the development site with an analysis of sediment runoff before any soil can be disturbed. A jurisdiction that violates this law may risk revocation of all Federal funding.
A flawed plan for handling runoff
The proposed stormwater management plan for the development also threatens the viability of the Green Cove Basin ecosystem. The runoff, polluted with nutrients, toxins and road waste, is proposed to be discharged to retention ponds and wetlands, and then into Green Cove Creek. The Green Cove Creek Plan states “the top priority that emerged during the planning process was reducing future stormwater runoff to Green Cove Creek,” in recognition of the serious impacts this would cause.
It would destabilize the stream channel and threaten critical habitat for the Endangered Species Act-listed Puget Sound Steelhead salmon. It would carry more pollutants into Green Cove Creek to endanger shellfish and the Olympic mudminnow, a state-sensitive species that has been found within 1000 feet of the site. It would cause flooding problems for some property owners around the creek and wetlands. In addition, habitat in other areas of the Green Cove Creek may begin to degrade.
Another difference between this development and others in the area is that it is at the headwaters of the last remaining undeveloped area of the Green Cove Creek watershed within the City of Olympia Urban Growth Area. The tributary that would take the brunt of the runoff from the development enters the creek directly as the creek enters a ravine. This would have a greater impact on stream conditions compared to other developments in the watershed; these are buffered by large wetland complexes at Grass Lake and along Kaiser Road. The plan also fails to account for climate change with its potential for increased frequency and intensity of rainfall in the context of longer droughts.
A clear signal that community watershed planning can be overturned
Paul Cereghino, a restoration ecologist volunteering in the watershed, studied the proposal and submitted comments to the City describing the danger of its implementation. “Should these plans for aggressive high-density development continue it would provide a clear signal. City leadership would plainly indicate that the for-profit ventures of Mr. Jerry Mahan of Puyallup have privileges that trump 20 years of community-based watershed planning. City leadership would signal that they have no concern about the risk of building a residential neighborhood on an illegal dump site located 4 minutes from a toxic cleanup, with no further investigation.”
Esther Kronenberg is a member of the League of Women Voters and writes often on water issues.