Those who braved the rain Sunday to try out the interim trail between Point Ruston and Point Defiance might have needed some imagination to visualize what it will look like when completed a few years from now.
The narrow blacktop trail will be replaced by a 20-foot-wide esplanade similar to the waterfront paths users have become familiar with along Point Ruston, Ruston Way and the Foss Waterway.
Metro Parks Tacoma has the money in hand not only to complete the gentle climb to the area now filled with Science and Math Institute portables but also build a pedestrian bridge over the road that leads down the ferry dock.
But as welcome as the trail completion will be, it will come at a cost beyond the $11 million in public money. State environmental officials say nearly half comes out of a program to clean up the arsenic and lead from the now-closed Asarco smelter. During the just-completed legislative session, lawmakers shifted $5 million from the Tacoma Smelter Plume account to Metro Parks to complete the trail. Another $3 million in state money came from other sources with the balance of $3 million coming from the park district’s last bond issue.
When I wrote about the trail project in July, I got the impression that the $5 million was somehow left over. Not really, says state Toxics Cleanup Program manager Rebecca Lawson. The transfer could mean there will be $5 million less for cleaning up residential yards, public parks and playgrounds contaminated with arsenic and lead.
The $94.6 million settlement account is part of a larger legal settlement with Asarco to deal with the environmental legacy of the company’s operations in Washington state. The Tacoma smelter closed in 1986 after nearly a century of operation.
Lawson said the settlement money covers yards not cleaned earlier under a federal Environmental Protection Agency program. Even the seemingly large amount is not enough to clean yards down to the advisable tolerance level of 20 parts per million of arsenic. Instead, yards above 100 parts per million will be eligible and the department advises others to use measures such as taking their shoes off in the house and carefully washing homegrown vegetables.
Parks and playgrounds are eligible for cleanup at the lower 20 parts per million level, Lawson said.
Sen. Sharon Nelson, a Democrat from Vashon Island, said she led the move to transfer the money to Metro Parks. She is familiar with Asarco’s legacy because the plume of pollutants reaches into her district, especially Maury Island. And she is familiar with the Ruston Way and Point Ruston waterfront because she often drives that route to and from the Point Defiance ferry dock.
“It is one of the most highly used waterfronts I have ever seen,” Nelson said. Using some of the settlement money to make it even more usable is proper because it was meant for both cleanup and mitigation.
“This is a logical use of the money,” she said. And she said she doesn’t think the transfer will lead to fewer cleanups.
“The yard cleanups are going incredibly slowly and we have a project that can mitigate what Asarco did,” she said.
But is an amenity like the trail project a higher priority than responding to a known public health risk? And if lawmakers see the settlement account as a source of easy money, will transfers become common?
Ecology officials disagree that cleanups are slowing down because the program is just getting started and is getting a good response. More than 200 homeowners have signed up for soil sampling, four cleanups are underway now at $50,000 per yard and four more are set for next month, said Ecology spokeswoman Linda Kent.
“We are working with 35 homeowners to plan cleanups for spring 2014 and are ramping up to clean up 100-150 yards per year by 2015,” she said. The department estimates there are 700 yards that exceed the 100 ppm level in the Ruston/North Tacoma area alone. Another 100 eligible yards are on Vashon Island and 400 others are in parts of Tacoma outside the established Superfund area.
The department is currently cleaning up Jane Clark Park in North Tacoma and is planning projects to clean up Titlow Park and Vassault Park. All are owned by Metro Parks.
Ecology officials are reluctant to criticize legislators and wouldn’t be specific as to how the trail transfer will affect the cleanup program, especially because it is a 10-year plan and because lawmakers weigh in every two years to say how the money should be spent.
Lawson, however, would say this: “It will influence how far the cleanup dollars go.”Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ thenewstribune.com @CallaghanPeter