State begins cleanup of Tacoma’s Vassault Park

This week marked the beginning of a year-long closure of Vassault Park’s playfields to allow for the removal of accumulated arsenic from the former Asarco copper smelter in Ruston.

The copper smelter, which operated from 1890 to 1986, spewed lead and arsenic across the South Sound. The Department of Ecology has been tasked with cleaning up the contamination.

Vassault in Tacoma’s West End is the largest and most involved cleanup project in the history of Ecology’s soil safety program, officials say.

The park’s tennis courts and playground will remain open during the cleanup project. However, the baseball and soccer fields will be closed for the full year to allow enough time for grass seed to grow and mature after the soil excavation and replacement.

“Because sports are so tough on grass, it needs the full year to fully develop,” said Nancy Johnson, spokeswoman for Metro Parks Tacoma.

Park activities are being shuffled to new locations. Nortac soccer club, the biggest user of Vassault Park, will shift to fields at Truman Middle School, Wilson High School and Jane Clark Park.

Paolo Mottola, executive director of Nortac, said relocating the teams has made it difficult to run an efficient soccer program due to the lack of turf fields. Vassault Park is a prime location for Nortac because of the vast field space, he said.

“You pay taxes so our kids have a place to play and there’s nowhere to play,” Mottola said about the lack of soccer fields in the Tacoma area.

Johnson said Metro Parks agrees with Mottola that there are too few soccer fields. Plans for new multi-purpose fields are in the works after $8 million was provided for athletic complexes and improvements as part of the $198 million parks bond for passed by voters in November.

“We recognize sports are a big part of the community fabric,” Johnson said. “I don’t think we’re as out of sync with goals. There’s a long-term vision (for new fields).”

The Sound to Narrows, which starts and ends in Vassault Park, may also be relocated or moved to a different footprint of the park, Johnson said.

Danette Felt, event organizer for Sound to Narrows said the organization was notified last winter about the possibility of moving the race. While there isn’t a concrete plan B for next year’s race location, Felt said the original race route starting at Owen Beach has been ruled out. The site and parking lot is not large enough to accommodate the high volume of race attendees, she said.

Felt said the organization has yet to consider other locations for the race, but as soon as plans for 2015 are finalized, it will release the details to the public.

State officials said any inconveniences are necessary to ensure the health and safety of park users.

Vassault was among the parks in the South Sound area with the highest amount of contamination from Asarco, said John Zinza, field coordinator and environmental engineer at the Department of Ecology.

Arsenic is naturally occurring in nature at around 7 parts per million. The highest levels of arsenic samples in Vassault were 240 parts per million, he said.

The majority of the contamination resides in the first 6 to 12 inches soil due to arsenic binding to dirt. The goal of the cleanup is for the remaining soil to be at around 100 parts per million which will be capped with 12 inches of topsoil, Zinza said.

Cleanup projects focus on parks where kids congregate. Parks where people picnic or can come into contact with loose dirt pose the greatest threat, he said.

While the arsenic levels are not immediately harmful to human health, long-term exposure could increase risk of heart disease, cancer and developmental disabilities in children, said Diana Smith, public involvement coordinator for the Department of Ecology.

By removing the soil, the health risks are significantly reduced, Smith said.

“Kids are special and we are leaving behind an area that they will play and the dangers of arsenic have been removed,” Zinza said.

The major aspects of the project, which includes soil excavation, new grating, new soil, drainage improvements and irrigation, will be completed by the end of September.

The Vassault cleanup will cost about $2.5 million and is funded by Asarco’s bankruptcy court settlement. The same pot of money that has paid for residential yard testing and cleanups in Tacoma.

Beginning in 2007, the Department of Ecology assessed 191 parks and determined that 32 required action ranging from signs indicating appropriate play areas to soil removal or cleaning.

Twenty-one parks have been completed with 11 remaining, Smith said.

Next on the list are potential cleanups at the Point Defiance play area and Fort Nisqually starting this winter. The Ecology Department and Metro Parks are working to decide if action is required for both areas, she said.