Colossal cleanup winds down in Ridgefield

Effort to decontaminate former wood treating site has taken more than a decade

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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photoThe steam-injection system used to clean Ridgefield’s former Pacific Wood Treating site operated from 2004 to 2011, but some parts of the system appear worn well beyond their years. Among the components waiting to be scrapped at the Port of Ridgefield are a pair of 600-gallon vacuum tanks.

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photoThe former Pacific Wood Treating site at the Port of Ridgefield sits adjacent to Carty Lake and the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. Port director Brent Grening said officials continue to monitor the lake’s health as the cleanup of the property wraps up.

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Public meeting

What: Open house meeting on the Pacific Wood Treating cleanup project

Where: Ridgefield Community Center, 210 N. Main Ave., Ridgefield

When: 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16,

RIDGEFIELD — The expansive steam-injection system at the former Pacific Wood Treating site isn’t removing toxic chemicals and sludge from the ground anymore. That process wrapped up last year.

But the system -- a crowded maze of pipes, pumps and tanks at the Port of Ridgefield -- isn’t idle, either. Workers are now using it to clean itself, flushing unused components of the equipment even as they take it apart to eventually scrap it.

The decommissioning process marks one of the final stages of a cleanup

effort that goes back more than a decade. But by the end of this year, the port hopes to transform the old wood treatment plant into a clean slate. That means removing the rest of the steam system, some 200 wells, plus nearly all of the aging buildings that have stood for decades.

Brent Grening, the port’s executive director, spent a recent afternoon walking the site just outside his office. He also spent a brief moment looking into the future.

“A year from now, we should be standing on an open, grassy field,” Grening said. “It’s going to be remarkable what’s not here.”

A historic photo hanging in the Port of Ridgefield office shows the Pacific Wood Treating site in its heyday, offering an overhead view of the process that made it an economic success and an environmental hazard. On the north end of the property sit clean, white logs, cut to be made into utility poles. Another stack sits at the other end of the property, blackened with chemicals applied to preserve the wood.

The plant operated for nearly three decades, treating wood products with oil-based solutions including creosote and pentachlorophenol. Those and other chemicals contaminated soil and groundwater in the area for years, and left behind a mess when the operation went bankrupt and closed down in 1993.

As Grening tells it, the plant’s operators “literally handed the keys to the port and said thanks.”

$66M and counting

The closure began a costly, state-funded cleanup with a price tag of $66 million so far, said Craig Rankine, a site manager with the state Department of Ecology. The steam injection system, used for seven years, was the centerpiece of the effort and removed almost 25,000 gallons of liquid contamination and more than a million pounds of sludge, according to the ecology department. That work ended June 30.

“It had done its duty,” Rankine said.

As the decommissioning process continues, pieces of the equipment show wear and tear well beyond their few years of use. Cracked, rust-stained tanks and pumps, now sitting idle on the port property, look like they’ve endured decades of punishment. Parts of the system may not have held up much longer under the intense heat and pressure used in steam treatment, Grening said.

Plenty of decommissioning work remains. The entire system used more than 2 miles of pipes that will be removed, cleaned or recycled for later use, said Karl Jolin, project manager at the port.

Officials are continuing to keep a close eye on the health of Carty Lake, just a stone’s throw from the cleanup site and part of the nearby Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. They’re also watching the ground conditions in neighborhoods to the east of the port, where dioxins have been found in the soil. It’s not known exactly how they’re linked to the Pacific Wood Treating site, Grening said.

Dioxins are a trickier contaminant to get a handle on, Rankine said. They’re caused by both natural and man-made sources, and determining which can be a challenge, he said.

“You can’t just turn off the source,” Rankine said. “It’s everywhere.”

The health of those neighborhoods and the lake will be among the topics covered during an open house meeting next Thursday at the Ridgefield Community Center.

The future of the Pacific Wood Treating site is unclear. Conceptual plans call for a mix of retail space, office space and open space once it’s developed again. But as the ghost of the wood treating plant finally fades away, at least this much is clear:

“It’s going to be vastly, vastly different,” Grening said. “I’m excited.”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.