Alcoa cleanup meeting draws small crowd

Proposal calls for monitoring pollution

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Industrial pollution leaching from an old landfill along the Columbia River drew scant public attention Thursday evening.

State environmental regulators are proposing to allow Alcoa to monitor a polluted plume of groundwater migrating to the river in Vancouver, rather than forcing an expensive cleanup.

Only nine people came in from a cold and rainy night to attend a public hearing on the proposal in Foster Auditorium on the Clark College campus.

The 7.7-acre landfill contains an estimated 175,000 cubic yards of industrial waste, ranging from metal piping to scrap aluminum to general construction debris.

It’s now covered by a permanent cap, but the unlined landfill is leaching pollution into groundwater flowing toward the Columbia River. Although monitoring wells reveal relatively low levels of most contaminants, they also show levels above the groundwater cleanup standard for an industrial solvent called trichloroethylene, or TCE, a suspected carcinogen.

State officials are proposing to require Alcoa to monitor groundwater pollution, rather than expending an estimated $22 million to $24 million cleaning it up.

“Water-treatment technologies using groundwater pump-and-treat systems and reactive barriers were examined and were not practical for this site,” according to the proposed cleanup action plan.

Groundwater in the area moves toward the Columbia River, just 50 feet away from the landfill. TCE is a chemical that tends to evaporate once it moves from groundwater to surface water, where a less stringent cleanup standard applies. There are no wells within 1,000 feet of the landfill, so state officials said they see no need to require a complicated groundwater extraction well that would have to be drilled horizontally from the side. Instead, they propose leaving it in place.

“To be honest, the site won’t be cleaned up for at least 50 years if you just naturally let it attenuate,” said Paul Skyllingstad, who has overseen the Alcoa site for the Department of Ecology’s industrial section for the past 22 years.

Vancouver retiree Al Jacobs came to the hearing for assurance that Ecology will exercise firm oversight, adding that he’s generally wary of large corporations. “You’ve got to watch them and be aware that they’re not honorable people,” he said.

The final cleanup action plan represents the last step to address Alcoa’s lingering industrial legacy along the Columbia River.

Lured by inexpensive federal hydropower, Alcoa established the first aluminum smelter in the Pacific Northwest in Vancouver in 1940. The smelter, which at one time employed as many as 2,000 people, closed during the West Coast energy crisis of 2000.

Today it’s owned by the Port of Vancouver, which recently extended a loop rail line and plans to use it for general industrial use and marine cargo handling. The port won’t be able to use the site in a way that would puncture the landfill, which is covered by a plastic cap with a clay liner underneath two feet of sand.

“Our plan is to use it at some point for storage — autos or some kind of cargo,” said Patty Boyden, environmental services director for the port.

The Department of Ecology also announced Thursday that it was extending the public comment period on the proposal to Dec. 6.