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News / Northwest

Underground fire still burns in Spokane-area landfill

Potentially toxic material feeding flames is target of state cleanup effort

By Amanda Sullender, The Spokesman-Review
Published: May 10, 2024, 7:42pm

SPOKANE — Smoldering through the underground remains of a long-forgotten building demolished half a century ago, the Gray Fire is still going strongly nearly a year later in a landfill near Eastern State Hospital.

Filled with potentially toxic building material, the underground fire is now subject to a cleanup effort by the state Department of Ecology.

Last summer, the Gray Fire ravaged Medical Lake. But unbeknownst to the firefighters who spent weeks combating flames, they were unsuccessful in putting out the fire in its entirety. The fire found its way down into a landfill on the property of Eastern State Hospital, where it continues to burn.

According to Washington Department of Social and Health Services spokesperson Tyler Hemstreet, the debris in the landfill stems from a building associated with the nearby psychiatric hospital that was demolished 60 to 70 years ago. At the time, standard operating procedure was to bury a demolished building — leaving all the concrete and potentially toxic materials used in building material at the time.

Aside from smoke coming up from the earth, the fire is not visible from the surface. While the fire began in August, it was not discovered by the Department of Social and Health Services until September. Over the course of several months, firefighters used water in several attempts to extinguish the underground flames. But those efforts were unable to reach the depths of the flame.

“It has a lot of concrete and building material in it, so there are a lot of weird oxygen pockets far down under the ground that’s allowing the fire to get air to keep combustion going,” Fire District 3 Chief Cody Rohrbach said.

According to Hemstreet, the landfill contains concrete bricks, metal and plaster, as well as more toxic material like asbestos and lead-based paint. DSHS also believes there is coal buried on the site.

At these early stages, Ecology is not sure what all is down there.

“We don’t know exactly what’s in there, and so we have to kind of assume to be conservative and protective that there could be something there,” Ecology spokesperson Kristin Beck said.

Following initial efforts to put out the fire, the site was left alone over the winter. The cold weather did not stop the underground fire, and the Washington Department of Ecology was notified of the situation in February.

Ecology is in negotiations with its sister state agency for an agreed order laying out the steps by which the Department of Social and Health Services will extinguish the fire and clean up the demolished building material on the site. Beck said they plan to reach an agreement within 60 days. Social and Health Services will then conduct a remedial investigation identifying the magnitude and extent of contamination at the site, and develop a feasibility study comparing cleanup methods.

“All of our formal cleanups take some time. That’s just the nature of the beast,” Beck said.

While the cumbersome planning process begins, the Department of Social and Health Services is allowed to take interim actions such as putting out the flame. But that effort is complicated by the site’s proximity to the southeastern bank of west Medical Lake. Putting more water on the site could cause some of the toxic material to leech into the nearby lake.

“There is some sensitivity, given the proximity to the lake, and to get to the source of the fire would require excavation. Disturbing the site could spread contamination,” Rohrbach said.

More than 500 yards of topsoil was dumped onto the site and compacted every 6 inches in an effort to starve the fire of oxygen.

Those living nearby should not be overly concerned about being exposed, officials said.

“There are no indications it is releasing a large amount of particulate matter,” Beck said.

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