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Hundreds of yards polluted by Asarco smelter still need cleanup. Here's this year's plan

Kevin Thiessen with MRC Construction sends a shovel full of contaminated soil into a pile in front of a  Ruston home at the 4700 block of Mullen Street in Ruston in 2011.
Kevin Thiessen with MRC Construction sends a shovel full of contaminated soil into a pile in front of a Ruston home at the 4700 block of Mullen Street in Ruston in 2011. News Tribune file photo

Remember the Asarco Smelter and the toxic plume of arsenic and lead emitted from its smokestack that settled onto and polluted thousands of yards in Ruston, Tacoma and on Vashon Island?

The state Department of Ecology is still working to clean up those yards. This year, thanks to the state Legislature's passage of a capital budget in January, the department can get back to a more aggressive schedule for doing so.

"We are breaking ground, removing dirt and moving forward on cleanup of 39 yards in north Tacoma and 16 yards on Vashon-Maury Island," the department announced this week.

From 1891 to 1986, the former Asarco Company operated its copper smelter in north Tacoma. Air pollution from the smelter settled on soils over more than 1,000 square miles of the Puget Sound region, the ecology department said. Arsenic, lead and other heavy metals are still in the soil as a result.

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Lead is linked to developmental disabilities in children and can permanently lower IQ. Arsenic can lead to cancer, diabetes and heart disease, the department said in a presentation to the City Council on Tuesday.

Ecology's Yard Program offers soil replacement to the most highly contaminated yards, and so far the agency has found 1,186 yards that qualify. Soil replacement has been completed on 224 of those yards in Tacoma, and 245 have been completed in the entire yard program service area, which includes Ruston and Vashon Island.

Asarco's bankruptcy in 2005 resulted in a $95 million settlement for the future cost of cleaning up the smelter plume. About $61.4 million of that money is going to the costs associated with the yard cleanup program, the ecology department said.

The money allotted in the Asarco settlement is not enough to clean up all the contamination from the smelter, the ecology department said, so it focuses on removing and replacing soil in the most contaminated areas and providing educational outreach throughout the region.

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Ecology plans to tackle another 39 yards in the Tacoma area this year, after only replacing soil in 17 yards in 2017 because funding was put on hold.

Remediation manager Amy Hargrove said the organization partners with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department to test the soil in yards that are within about 1 square mile of where the waterfront smelter was located. That site has been safely capped and was transformed into the picturesque shopping and dining hub Point Ruston.

If your soil gets sampled, you'll get a letter from the health department letting you know whether or not you qualify for remediation, Hargrove said. It's a voluntary program, and homeowners can opt out if they want, though Hargrove said the vast majority want to have their soil replaced if it's contaminated.

"There are people who just, they've taken so much time working on their own property that us coming in and disturbing it is very stressful for them," she said. "I'm sure there are other reasons out there as well for why people don't participate."

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud
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