The Port of Tacoma Commission recently got bad news that could cost unbudgeted millions on finding hidden sources of contamination and a second cleanup of the Hylebos Waterway.
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are making a return to a port waterway that six years ago – by dint of years of study, planning and a $60 million dredging project – was clean of toxic pollutants.
Commissioners, unhappy to hear of the recurring contamination, but forced to act, last week authorized $50,000 as the first installment on a comprehensive environmental sleuthing effort to find the source of those long-lived, cancer-causing chemicals whose manufacture in the United States was banned 33 years ago.
That environmental detective work could cost as much as $3 million, port environmental project manager Scott Hooton told the commission. Cleanup efforts could cost untold amounts more.
Commission members were clearly disturbed to hear that PCB levels were rising in an area that once passed muster as clean after a legacy of years of pollution.
“There’s a flaw in the fundamental assumption about going in and cleaning it up and then creating a bathtub that allows recontamination,” said Commissioner Don Meyer. Meyer said the source issue should have been dealt with as part of the original cleanup effort.
Commissioner Connie Bacon, upset that the port was starting to spend more money on a problem that appeared to have been solved, voted against the allocation of $50,000 to begin the PCB source investigation.
The object of the new environmental crisis, the Hylebos Waterway, is the Tideflats’ industrial inlet closest to the rising landscape of Northeast Tacoma. Over the course of history, the waterway’s banks were lined by pollution-generating industries: chemical plants producing chlorine and caustic soda, log yards paved with the arsenic and metal-laden slag from Tacoma’s Asarco smelter, shipyards, metal recyclers, asphalt plants, and sawmills.
So when a massive and expensive effort to clean up the Hylebos was largely finished in the middle of the past decade, it represented a considerable achievement.
At least that’s what those involved were thinking.
Now it appears they might have been mistaken.
New tests conducted for the Environmental Protection Agency show that while a Port of Tacoma environmental official calls “an alphabet soup of contaminants” including arsenic, mercury, zinc, lead and what’s called high molecular weight polycyclin aromatic hydrocarbons (HPAHs) have remained well within safe limits six years after the massive dredging and capping project was done, one pollutant has not.
PCB levels are rising in the waterway sediments.
“PCB concentrations have increased approximately four-fold and are now approaching (and in some case exceed) pollution limits established under EPA’s September 1989 Record of Decision,” wrote Hooton, environmental project manager for the port, in a recent memo to Port of Tacoma commissioners.
Those tests were conducted in the upper half of the Hylebos where Hylebos Creek enters the waterway. The lower half of the waterway, near its mouth, will soon be tested for recurring pollution.
The investigators the port hired at the Kirkland environmental consulting firm of Dalton, Olmsted and Fuglevand will have a daunting task ahead of them. The Hylebos is fed not only by Hylebos Creek, which itself has undergone a major public-private rehabilitation effort, but by multiple drainage ditches, outfalls and surface runoffs. Given the industrial history of much of the surrounding land, the PCBs could be coming from any direction, even from the bay end of the waterway. Tidal flows sweep up the waterway twice daily.
“This doesn’t look like the typical urban runoff situation,” Hooton said. “This is a difficult situation. No doubt about it.”
“That $3 million is a conservative figure,” he added. With any luck, the pollution source or sources will be found without spending that much money.
PCBs were used in a wide variety of industrial applications because of the stability, long life and insulating capacity. Most electrical transformers built before the PCB ban were insulated with PCBs. The chemical plants that formerly lined the Hylebos used the region’s cheap electricity to produce their chemicals, and Kaiser’s big aluminum smelter near the Hylebos used that same hydropower to convert bauxite ore into aluminum.
The PCBs found in the Hylebos during the 2012 sampling were in the form of fine-grained sediments, said Hooton, suggesting perhaps they had their origin in PCB that leaked or were dumped on a port industrial site and then carried by rain water into the waterway.
The port is obligated to pay half of the investigation and cleanup expenses in part because it bought a tract of land along the west side of the Hylebos once occupied by an Arkema chemical plant. With that purchase came the responsibility divided equally with Schnitzer Steel on the opposite side of the waterway to monitor and clean up the head of the Hylebos Waterway.
Schnitzer, which assumed liability when it bought the General Metals recycling yard on the waterway, and Arkema had spent nearly $60 million dredging the waterway of some 405,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the waterway and cleaning and capping contaminated areas on their own properties.
Arkema reduced the purchase price of its land to the port by some $4.7 million to pay for possible further cleanup expenses that the port might incur after Arkema left.
Hooton told commissioners that most of that land purchase discount has already been consumed in port cleanup activities on the Arkema site. Any additional expenses for finding the PCB sources and cleaning them up would be above and beyond the allowance that Arkema gave the port when it bought the old chemical plant property.
If the port is fortunate, the ongoing investigation will discover a single source of contaminants that could be easily cleaned up on property owned by a company with the deep pockets necessary to fund that cleanup. Otherwise, the port and Schnitzer could end up paying the costs themselves.
Port Commissioner Meyer said he wants the port to develop an holistic plan for dealing with Hylebos pollution, one that includes cutting off sources of new contamination.
“Until we get there,” he said, “we’re going to spend a lot of money needlessly.”