The Tideflats have been Tacoma’s industrial hub for more than a century.
Environmental laws have been in place for only a few decades. You do the math.
Businesses made fortunes off Pacific Northwest trees and metals. Sawmills, pulp mills, chemical plants, a coal gasification plant and metal foundries all left their mark on Tacoma’s Tideflats.
Property owners expanded their footprint into the bay with silt dredged to drain the wetlands, wrecked cars and other large objects. Slag from the Asarco copper smelter in Ruston made a particularly sturdy base for the area’s many sawmills.
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Before the EPA, before the Clean Water Act and before other environmental regulations, companies poured their waste into the Puyallup River and Tideflats, creating a toxic stew so vile that it became part of the larger Commencement Bay Superfund site in the early 1980s.
The Port of Tacoma is playing catchup in cleaning up generations of poor business practices, spending millions on site studies, contractors and environmental remediation.
We now know that Asarco slag, when met with decomposing sawmill debris and rainwater runoff, can leach arsenic into the soil. Paints that contained tributyltin, also called TBT, were particularly effective at keeping shellfish off of a ship’s hull, but the chemical lingers for decades in marine soils.
“It was a great biocide,” said Rob Healy, the port’s senior project manager in the environmental and planning group. “It doesn’t do great things when it leaches into the water.”
Cleaning up such “legacy contamination” can cost millions and take years, said Jason Jordan, Port of Tacoma’s director of environmental programs at a recent meeting.
Ports are “uniquely qualified,” he said, to clean up fallow industrial properties using public dollars. Much of the private sector is “not really interested” in these expensive cleanup operations, Jordan told the members of the Northwest Seaport Alliance in June.
Clearing and capping contamination on such unused sites are seen as an economic development opportunity — for those who get jobs clearing contaminated sites and for businesses that later use the remediated land, Healy said.
One such parcel is the former home to Kaiser Aluminum’s smelting facility. For more than 60 years, Kaiser called a 96-acre parcel on the Blair Waterway home. The property had more than 70 buildings and a signature smokestack that towered 500 feet into the sky, dwarfing cranes now used to lift containers onto ocean-going ships.
The port has spent $38 million on the 96-acre property, including buying the land, demolishing dozens of buildings, and removing or capping contaminated areas. The land is temporarily being used by Auto Warehousing Co. as a Foreign Trade Zone for imported cars and was once proposed for a now-canceled natural gas to methanol venture.
The Port of Tacoma controls about half of the Tideflats’ roughly 5,000 acres. Dozens of companies own the rest. From the 1980s through 2012, the port spent around $175 million on a combination of projects that included mitigation and remediation, Healy said.
The port has a goal of cleaning up 200 acres of Tideflats land by 2022. By that time, the port could spend another $80 million to $140 million.
That’s a wide range in costs, but to some extent, the port and other property owners don’t know exactly what a century of toxic business practices left behind.
“I don’t think we’ve found everything,” said Marv Coleman, the cleanup project manager for a number of contaminated sites on the Tideflats for the state Department of Ecology. He was among the first of Ecology’s workers to seek the sources of historic and ongoing contamination in the 1980s.
What many people today call the Tideflats north of Highway 509 is actually fill, Coleman said.
“Some of that fill is not just soil,” Coleman said. “A lot of it was industrial waste. … We are still finding new sources of contamination.”
FROM HYLEBOS TO LOVE CANAL
Each property cleanup starts with an investigation. Drilling columns of soil and rock from beneath parcels, testing for contaminants and looking for underground storage tanks is just the beginning for most properties.
Officials then have to decide how to clean it up and pay for it. That’s not always easy.
Occidental Chemical and its predecessors operated for 76 years on a 23-acre site on the Hylebos Waterway, where the company made bleach, chlorine and other chemicals for the paper industry.
“It has a long history of industrial disposal practices that were not illegal at the time,” said Kerry Graber, project manager for the state Department of Ecology earlier this year.
While the buildings were demolished years ago, heavy metals remain in the soil, including mercury, lead, copper, arsenic, nickel and others.
But the highest concern — and the most perplexing — are two underground plumes that have spilled across the property line. Together the plumes cover as much area as the footprint of five CenturyLink stadiums.
One plume of highly concentrated chlorinated compounds extends nearly 200 feet below sea level. Another plume of high-pH sodium hydroxide has flummoxed Ecology staffers and researchers who call it “the blob,” Graber said.
The pH is so high “it has dissolved a portion of the aquifer,” she said. It also puzzles hydrogeologists because sometimes the plume moves against the current. The alkaline plume dissolves sand and silt. If it’s pumped to the surface and encounters lower pH water or is pumped too quickly, the silicates precipitate into a congealed gel, which clogs pumps.
Part of the plumes are under the Hylebos Waterway. And the two plumes at times comingle, Graber said. Professors from the University of Washington’s chemistry department, along with a team of graduate students, are researching what to do.
Graber said they don’t know exactly what’s going on, but Ecology has enough information to start the project, which largely agrees with Occidental Chemical’s proposed plan to use groundwater wells to draw up some of the contamination and in-ground barriers to stop the rest of it from moving. Specifics will be unveiled in a fall meeting.
How long will it take to clean the site?
“What we’ve been trying to do is work within a 100-year restoration time frame,” Graber said. “I know that sounds really big, but that’s really ambitious for this site.”
Contamination from the Occidental site spills over onto nearby parcels, including those owned by the Port of Tacoma. Private companies seldom attack such problems themselves, Healy said.
“They are one of the more aggressive private companies that tries to do the right thing,” Healy said of Occidental Chemical. “But they are still a private company. Twenty years ago, I don’t think they did the right thing.”
The Occidental Chemical site was formerly used by Hooker Chemical Co., which made the same chemicals here as it did in New York, Coleman said.
Hooker disposed of its carcinogenic toxic sludge by filling in low-lying areas on the Tideflats, in much the same way it did in New York. There, the company filled a canal with barrels of sludge and other toxic chemicals, capped the canal with clay and sold the land for a dollar to a developer who later built the Love Canal neighborhood.
Residents in Love Canal suffered high miscarriage and birth defect rates. The city’s high-profile case was among those that led to creation of the federal Superfund program.
Today’s environmental laws and steep permit requirements mean a Hooker Chemical Co. could never open and operate here as it did in past decades. But companies and public agencies have a lot of work ahead to compensate for the Tideflats’ dirty past.
When it comes to environmental remediation, “cleanup” is relative. The standards are different depending on the property’s future use.
“I’m never going to build a daycare over here, so I’m not going to look at child exposure risks,” Healy said of remediating port property. “I’m never going to build a condominium, either.”
Even after properties are remediated, the port has decades of site monitoring ahead, Healy said recently. But once the properties reach that stage, like the 96-acre Kaiser site, they are ready for a tenant.
A former gravel mine and dump site became a 30-acre wetland at the mouth of the Hylebos Creek a few years back. The site was named by the Puyallup Tribe of Indians in their native tongue. Translated, it means “Place of Circling Waters.”
The site includes a short, paved walking trail that leads to an overlook onto the restored tidal marsh, an important resting and feeding spot for juvenile salmon.
“We’ve only had 30 or 40 years of effective environmental regulation,” Healy told the seaport alliance in June. “That 60-year gap has created a lot of legacy issues that we’ve been dealing with and will deal with for a long time into the future.”