State takes over cleanup effort of Asarco-tainted properties

The area surrounding the old Asarco smelter in Ruston will see a renewed cleanup effort this year now that the state Department of Ecology has officially been given control of the project.

For 20 years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency controlled restoration efforts, including sampling soil and spearheading cleanup of residential yards in Ruston and north Tacoma that were contaminated by the former copper smelter.

The handoff to the state means people living in the affected area can expect a publicity push soon about the next round of cleanup and how to sign up to have soil tested.

“For people living in the area, what that’s going to mean is they are going to hear a lot more from their local Dirt Alert program,” said Hannah Aoyagi, project planner with the state Department of Ecology’s toxics cleanup program.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department will handle the community outreach. That includes providing educational material and connecting people with information to understand what’s been done on their property in the past. The department took over operation of the Asarco Information Center this month.

“The big push is going to be trying to reach people who are new to the area,” Aoyagi said. “That’s something we haven’t done in the past.”

It also means cleanup efforts will resume in the area, which was declared a Superfund site in 1993. The EPA concluded its cleanup program in 2012. People who have moved to the area since then could be surprised to learn what’s going on, Aoyagi said.

The smelter operated at the border of Ruston and north Tacoma for more than 100 years before closing in 1985.

Emissions contaminated surface soils with arsenic and lead in a 1,000-square-mile area. Some contamination reached Vashon and Maury islands. Arsenic and lead are toxic and can pose a health risk, especially to children.

In its 20 years of restorative efforts, the EPA sampled 3,570 properties and cleaned up 2,436 yards with the worst contamination. Those properties were located within a 1-square-mile area of the former smelter.

As little as 1 inch to as much as 2 feet of soil was removed during that time from properties in Ruston, north Tacoma and Point Defiance Park. A total of 250,000 cubic yards of arsenic- and lead-contaminated soil were hauled to toxic storage.

The state cleanup focuses on yards that didn’t qualify for federal cleanup but still have high arsenic and lead levels. Seven hundred properties have been identified so far.

The state will start cleanup on 60 of those properties in the late summer and fall. The state will also clean up eight properties that the EPA wasn’t able to finish before handing over the project. The EPA will continue to oversee cleanup at the smelter property itself.

Restorative efforts in the area could take up to a decade. Participation is voluntary but Ecology is encouraging people to participate because it’s a “one-time offer,” Aoyagi said.

The cleanup is being paid for with $188 million from a bankruptcy court settlement with Asarco. Tacoma’s share is about $95 million; the remainder is for cleanup efforts at an Everett smelter and four mines.

To raise awareness about the ongoing cleanup, the health department will send a Dirt Alert van to neighborhoods to let people know they may be eligible for soil replacement. Residents of the affected area will receive an annual update reminding them of potential hazards in the soil and safety measures they should take.

More online

To learn if your yard was already cleaned, or to see soil sampling data, visit 1.usa.gov/1d0UboW

For more information on the Dirt Alert program or to sign up for free soil sampling, visit dirtalert.info

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467