Groundwater contamination is nothing new at the University of Washington Tacoma campus.
Since the mid-1990s, university officials have spent about $7 million investigating and cleaning up chemicals left over from the site’s industrial past.
But in doing so, they’ve discovered another problem: They don’t know where all the contamination is coming from.
A proposed legal agreement between UWT and the state Department of Ecology would try to find the source of remaining groundwater contamination once and for all, this time looking beyond the boundaries of the 46-acre downtown campus.
Never miss a local story.
Officials say the contaminated groundwater — which doesn’t affect the drinking supply — presents little risk to students and others at UWT.
Still, it’s important to determine the extent of the contamination and how to clean it up, said UWT spokesman Michael Wark. As part of the proposed agreement, UWT also would draft a cleanup plan.
“We want to do this for the environment, and we want to do it to ensure health and safety,” Wark said.
Chemicals in the groundwater below UWT include trichloroethene (TCE), perchloroethene (PCE) and petroleum hydrocarbons — chemicals that are toxic or carcinogenic if ingested or inhaled at high enough levels.
We want to do this for the environment, and we want to do it to ensure health and safety.
Michael Wark, UW Tacoma spokesman
The source of the contamination appears to be somewhere higher on the hillside, west of Tacoma Avenue, according to UWT’s past studies.
The new investigation would seek to pinpoint the location by collecting ground water samples and soil samples from locations on- and off-campus. UWT is legally obligated to clean up the groundwater on its site. If the investigation identifies areas of contamination beyond the campus, other property owners also may be required to help clean up.
Ecology is seeking public comments on the proposed legal agreement with UWT through May 4. Officials also are encouraging people to attend a public meeting April 6 to ask questions and share their thoughts about the proposed investigation.
“One of the things we want to do is make sure the nature of our agreement addresses people’s concerns,” said Marv Coleman, Ecology’s site manager for the UWT project.
Ecology officials are primarily worried about the chemicals reaching the Foss Waterway and whether they are rising up through the soil as vapors that could be harmful for people to inhale, Coleman said.
So far, testing at UWT hasn’t found any problems with vapor intrusions on campus, Coleman said. UWT officials say their testing indicates the groundwater contamination hasn’t reached the Foss Waterway yet, either.
Sheri Tonn, co-founder of the group Citizens for a Healthy Bay, said the kind of groundwater contamination UWT is dealing with “is not unique in Tacoma.”
There are the possibilities of lung effects, liver effects, carcinogenesis. These are not nice chemicals.
Sheri Tonn, co-founder of Citizens for a Healthy Bay and a chemistry professor at Pacific Lutheran University
Tonn, who is a professor of chemistry at Pacific Lutheran University, said the hillside where UWT now sits “has had problems for years.”
In some parts of downtown Tacoma, contamination from PCEs and TCEs can be traced to old dry cleaning businesses that dumped chemicals straight into the ground, she said.
At harmful levels, the chemicals can cause cancerous lesions on marine life, as well as cancer and other health problems in humans, she said.
“There are the possibilities of lung effects, liver effects, carcinogenesis. These are not nice chemicals,” Tonn said.
Tonn said she would be concerned if the proposed study does find that the chemicals have reached the Foss Waterway, which she described as just now recovering from a long history of pollution.
“It’s had a number of cleanups and it’s starting to recover, but it’s not healthy by any means,” Tonn said.
The worst case is they’ll have flaggers out there directing traffic.
Dave Leonard, director of UW Tacoma’s environmental health and safety department, on potential traffic impacts of groundwater testing on nearby streets
Wark, the UWT spokesman, said the groundwater contamination at UWT is less severe than the pollution Tacoma residents still deal with from the Asarco copper smelter, which contaminated soil throughout the region with arsenic and lead.
In that case, “The lead and arsenic came down from the air onto ground,” Wark said. “That’s a different type of industrial legacy.”
By contrast, he said, “This is the kind of thing you might not be aware of unless you look.”
The groundwater testing may involve some traffic interruptions on streets downtown near the UWT campus, said Dave Leonard, director of UWT’s environmental health and safety department.
Rigs roughly the size of firetrucks may need to temporarily block lanes of traffic to drill small wells into the ground, he said.
“The worst case is they’ll have flaggers out there directing traffic,” he said. “The other case is maybe the street is wide enough so they can just have cones there.”
The precise locations for the drilling won’t be known until after the university starts testing and can track the source of the contamination, officials said.
UWT officials said they expect the study to take about four years.
Groundwater contamination meeting
What: Meeting about proposed investigation into groundwater contamination at UW Tacoma. Officials from the state Department of Ecology will be on hand to answer questions.
When: April 6. An open house starts at 5:30 p.m., followed by a 6 p.m. presentation and a question-and-answer session. The open house will continue from 7:30-8 p.m.
Where: Meeting room at United Methodist Church, 621 Tacoma Ave. S., Tacoma.
Send comments: Comments can also be emailed to Marv Coleman at Marv.Coleman@ecy.wa.gov.