Toxic sites cleanup list a tall order

As it continues to grow, officials run into variety of complications at some locations in Clark County

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 

BY THE NUMBERS

• 68: Total hazardous cleanup sites listed in Clark County

• 4: Number of sites where work is categorized as complete

• 42: Number of sites categorized as cleanup started

• 22: Number of sites categorized as awaiting cleanup

• 50: Listed sites located in Vancouver

• 13: Listed sites directly related to Camp Bonneville

RIDGEFIELD — On the eastern shore of the Lake River, two adjacent properties tell contrasting stories of the state's Toxics Cleanup Program.

Both first landed on the state's hazardous sites list in 1996. Both earned the highest-priority ranking. But from there, the sites took dramatically different paths.

Pacific Wood Treating became one of the region's most high-profile cleanup jobs, running up an estimated tab of $66 million as workers scrambled to remove harmful chemicals from soil and groundwater near the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. The pollution was deposited over decades by a facility that closed in 1993, leaving a massive mess behind. But the state and the Port of Ridgefield — which owns the site — hope to have it mostly excavated and scrubbed clean by the end of this year.

Just to the south, the R.J. Frank property has seen no such urgency. Frank, the former owner, initiated an independent cleanup on land that once housed underground fuel tanks and some chemically treated lumber from next door. But he never formally detailed the work or its results. State officials never followed up. After more than 16 years on the hazardous sites list, it's still classified as "awaiting cleanup."

"We have a lot of sites," said Guy Barrett, a state Department of Ecology hydrogeologist who took on the cleanup as site manager last year. "This was a site that I guess kind of got lost in the shuffle a little bit."

So how do two neighboring cleanup efforts with the same priority ranking end up in such different places? In short, one was simply considered a more imminent danger than the other. But the sites also help illustrate the many factors that get some properties quick action, and leave others idle — among them public risk, owner cooperation and available funding.

Those questions apply well outside of Ridgefield. In maintaining a hazardous sites list with hundreds of entries statewide, program leaders say they simply don't have the resources to tackle them all. The result is a growing backlog that's left some local spots on the cleanup list for two decades or more.

"We've got way more contaminated sites than we have people to work on (cleanup)," said Rebecca Lawson, who helps oversee Ecology's Toxics Cleanup Program in Southwest Washington.

The state's hazardous sites list includes 68 properties in Clark County, most of them in Vancouver. Some are major industrial facilities and others are mom-and-pop businesses. Several are former dry cleaners and laundry locations. Old gas stations dot the list. Thirteen of the sites are directly related to Camp Bonneville, the former U.S. Army firing range left littered with munitions, lead and other pollutants.

"There is a huge range," Lawson said.

When a property goes on the hazardous sites list, it's given a ranking between 1 and 5: 1 being the most serious, 5 being the lowest priority. Superfund sites are given a "0" rank — those fall under a separate federal Environmental Protection Agency program.

For Clark County, it's a list that's getting longer. More than a dozen properties have been added during the past five years alone. Almost one-third of the 68 total sites are listed as awaiting cleanup.

Worst first

Program leaders say they generally take a "worst first" approach in deciding which cleanup sites get immediate action. But it's not always that simple. The ultimate responsibility typically falls to the property owner — even if he or she inherited the mess — which can affect how quickly such an effort gets moving.

"The reality is, if people don't want to clean and they want to drag their heels … it can make it hard," Lawson said. Ecology can issue enforcement orders and take matters to court, but cleanup efforts rarely reach that point, she said.

On the other hand, if the owners of a hazardous site says they want to move forward, state officials don't want to say no. A voluntary program helps expedite some cleanups, often minor, that don't make the hazardous list. Some efforts pick up speed when an owner wants to sell the property.

If an owner can't pay, and shows that through financial records, Ecology may treat it as an "abandoned" or "orphaned" property and draw from the state's toxics cleanup fund. This may happen when the owner of a relatively small operation simply doesn't have the resources to tackle a big job, Lawson said.

"They don't have what could be $500,000 or $1 million sometimes that it would take for a cleanup," she said, though insurance companies can also play a role.

In the case of Pacific Wood Treating, the port and state quickly acted on what was clearly a major environmental threat, said site manager Craig Rankine. It was also boosted by state grants and loans that aren't available for every project. The property's precarious setting had a lot to do with its urgency.

"It was high-profile because it was a big risk," Rankine said. "If you want to be environmentally sound, having that kind of contamination next to a wildlife refuge and a residential area doesn't fly."

The decade-long cleanup process is winding down this year. The elaborate steam-injection system used to clean the ground and groundwater on the site is gone. Most of the buildings that housed the old wood treating facility are gone. All that's left is a field of concrete, twisted rail lines and debris. Crews plan to excavate the remains and cover the land with clean fill dirt by this fall.

State officials say several complicating factors led the R.J. Frank property down a decidedly different path. Its original owner has died since the independent cleanup was initiated, leaving authorities unsure what has — or hasn't — been done, Barrett said. The property eventually became part of McCuddy's Ridgefield Marina, which bought the land out of bankruptcy in the 1990s, said Mark McCuddy, whose family owns the marina. State reports show little action on the site since that time. But they do list petroleum products, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and halogenated organics as confirmed contaminants in the soil.

The marina now uses the parcel for parking and storage. A gravel road stretches most of its length, squeezed between the railroad tracks and the Lake River to the south of Mill Street. Boats are kept inside a fenced area to one side. And at least part of the property may change hands again — the port and the city of Ridgefield may acquire some right of way for a planned expansion of nearby Pioneer Street. The agencies are aware of the property's status as a hazardous cleanup site, but that won't keep plans from moving forward, said Randy Mueller, the port's director of business development.

The site's cloudy history leaves a lot of questions unanswered. It also leaves any potential cleanup back at square one.

"It would be a mistake to go out there are start digging," Barrett said. "We need to know where the contamination is -- if there is any."

Mixed legacies

Not all of Clark County's hazardous cleanup sites are ghosts of the past. Some have transformed into new uses. Some never changed.

Bill and Roxanne Doty's Fargher Lake Grocery store underwent a cleanup process of its own some two decades ago as crews removed old fuel tanks that had polluted the property. The store still sells gas, but uses new tanks in a different location that comply with state rules, Bill Doty said. He called the cleanup process a "nightmare," but considered it over with long ago.

On the hazardous sites list, however, the Fargher Lake Grocery is still categorized as awaiting cleanup, with a 3 ranking. The reason? An apparent miscommunication. Doty said he wasn't aware his business was still on the list after the initial work was done, and didn't hear otherwise. The site was actually still listed under a "monitoring" status. But Fargher Lake Grocery switched back to "awaiting cleanup" in 2008, as properties automatically do if the state doesn't hear from the owner for five years, said cleanup site manager Paul Turner.

The Dotys bought and remodeled the property in the 1990s after leasing at first. They've successfully run a north county landmark since.

"That's pretty old history," Bill Doty said.

Several of the small properties that ended up on Clark County's hazardous sites list were once dry cleaners. Many caused problems for the same reason — in another era, the disposal of dangerous chemicals didn't follow the same rules as today. Laundry owners didn't take used chemicals off-site. Many simply dumped them or discharged them into dry wells on their own properties, Barrett said. The resulting contamination still lingers in soil and groundwater, often spreading off-site.

In Ridgefield, the former Park Laundry site is now a bare field in the city's heart off North Main Avenue. The building is long gone. All that remains visible are a pair of innocuous monitoring well caps in the grass.

The Hazel Dell Fred Meyer is on the hazardous sites list because of another former dry cleaner that closed there a few years ago. The building that once housed Milton's Dry Cleaners still stands on Fourth Plain Boulevard in Vancouver. But it's far from quiet — it's now home to the House of Smoke tobacco shop, drawing a regular stream of customers on a recent afternoon.

'A lot of mysteries'

The future of the R.J. Frank property in Ridgefield remains unclear. Barrett and other state Ecology employees walked the relatively small site earlier this month, led by McCuddy and a marina manager. For some, it was their first time on the property.

Barrett took note of a flat concrete foundation that once lay under a residence, but now sits bare. A larger section of concrete footing coming out of the ground to the south stumped everyone, including the marina manager. McCuddy said the structure, partially overtaken by tall grass, had been there since the marina owned the property. The group guessed it was part of a larger building, but old records don't indicate exactly what.

"There's a lot of mysteries" on this site, said Michael Bergman, a public involvement coordinator with the Ecology department.

The site has received renewed attention since Barrett was assigned to it last year. The marina is working cooperatively to answer questions, and was served with a formal notice from the state in April to get the cleanup process rolling.

"We'd like to find out what we need to do," McCuddy said. "I'll be able to tell you more once I know the entire scope of the project."

The push comes as state leaders continue to juggle hundreds of other cleanup sites and landowners with limited funds. Clark County is only one of 12 counties in Ecology's southwest region alone — a region that includes crowded Pierce County.

The statewide Toxic Cleanup Program budget has ranged from $20 million and $25 million in recent years, not including capital funding. Less than $3 million of that went to the southwest region in 2011.

McCuddy is hoping his property doesn't require a huge undertaking to clean up. He, like other property owners, would rather have his family's land off the hazardous sites list. But history says that's not always a quick and seamless process.

"We'd like to get it behind us," McCuddy said. "Get it cleaned up and move forward."

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

Hazardous cleanup sites in Clark County

The Washington State Department of Ecology maintains a list of hundreds of hazardous sites in its Toxics Cleanup Program. Sixty-eight of those sites are in Clark County. Below is a map showing each property, shown by priority according to the state's rankings, and reporter Eric Florip's story about efforts to clean things up.

Map by Web Editor John Hill