Transformation of Thea Foss industrial site took more than a quarter century

When then-Thea Foss Waterway Development Authority Executive Director Don Meyer first toured the American Plating Co. site at the waterway’s head, he was concerned by the obvious enormity of the task that lay before the authority.

That job was to transform the waterfront site that for decades had been polluted by large quantities of metals and degreasers used in the plating process into a greensward and a base for human-powered watercraft.

“There was a concrete pool there that was used to store the liquids used in the plating process. All around it, down toward the water, the ground was bare. No vegetation was growing,” said Meyer, now a Tacoma port commissioner.

Indeed, scientific tests of the former industrial plant would show that the buildings, their wooden beams and siding, and even the concrete floors that had housed the plating activity were so permeated with harmful substances that when they were razed, the materials had to be shipped to a hazardous waste containment site in Oregon for disposal.

Those substances — a potpourri of metals including cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, nickel and silver — and trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent used to degrease the parts to be plated, also had seeped through cracks in the plating works’ floors, contaminating the soil and even, in some cases, reaching the groundwater.

From the time that American Plating filed for bankruptcy and quit using the site at 2110 E. D St. for industrial activity in 1986, it’s taken nearly 30 years of intermittent effort to demolish the plating plant, remove pollutants and refashion the 1.5-acre property into a waterside park in the shadow of the state Route 509 cable-stayed bridge.

Now, the state Department of Ecology is poised to remove the site from its Hazardous Sites List, an action that will signify that the site cleanup is finally done.

The fact that it took nearly three decades to transform the site is indicative of both the complexity of discovering and removing the legacy of decades of polluting processes but also the intermittent availability of funds to get the job done.

Marv Coleman, DOE’s project manager for the cleanup, said that because the plating company had gone bankrupt, there was no private money there to accomplish the site remediation, and the site owner was recalcitrant when the state approached him to fund the cleanup.

“We could have sued, but it might have cost us more money in legal fees than we could have recovered,” he said.

With state and federal budgets tight, both the DOE and the Foss Waterway Development Authority tapped a handful of other sources to get the job done bit by bit.

Fortunately, a major pollution issue that originated at the plant had been dealt with by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency when it undertook cleanup of the bottom of the former industrial inlet from Commencement Bay.

When the city of Tacoma began planning the gentrification of the near-downtown waterway three decades ago, the Foss was lined with heavy industrial uses including a coal gasification plant, a plywood mill, a shipyard, vast old waterfront warehouses and a towering steam plant providing heat for much of downtown.

By the early 1980s, when the EPA declared the Foss part of its Tideflats Superfund site, the waterway was polluted by decades of industrial dumping.

The plating company’s business was to plate metal parts used commonly in activities such as automotive and aerospace assembly with other metals for aesthetic and protective reasons. Auto wheels, for instance, made of steel or other metals, might be plated with chrome to give cars more bling and to protect the steel from corrosion.

The plating company, said Coleman, accumulated its degreasers and metallic wastes into that 20,000-gallon concrete sump, and when it was full, simply discharged its contents through a pipe that led straight into the waterway.

The city of Tacoma took the first remedial action in the late ’80s, halting further discharges of pollutants from the plant into the waterway. Then DOE stepped in to remove the two major buildings on the site, to dispose of the 18,000 gallons of contaminated effluent in the sump and to remove the concrete pool.

Though the plant’s roofs were leaking prodigiously with every rain, when DOE began its cleanup, the plating company buildings were the temporary homes of itinerants seeking refuge from the elements. The agency fenced off the site while it began demolition.

The Foss Waterway Development Authority acquired the plating company site and an adjacent tract for some $660,000 once the DOE’s work was done. The authority’s further site cleanup removed 1.75 tons of trash, metal waste and asphalt from the site. More than 1,000 tons of contaminated soil was stripped from the former plating company land and disposed of in an approved site, and the underlying soil was capped with clean soil. Wells were drilled to tap the groundwater to check for pollution.

Su Dowie, the waterway authority’s executive director, said the authority tapped many sources to pay for the final cleanup. The authority’s records show those funds came from five grant sources and totaled nearly $1.2 million. It took 10 more years after the authority acquired the land in 2003 to complete the cleanup.

Even now, keeping the cleaned-up property maintained depends in part on the charity and goodwill of others. One of the groups that uses the park area and the float on the waterway keeps litter at bay. A nearby business sees that the grassy turf is mowed.

And while the Department of Ecology plans to remove the site from its list of hazardous sites, the work isn’t yet complete to fully develop the site for use by the canoe, kayak, rowing and dragon boat groups that use the area as a launching site for their vessels. An adjacent 1.8-acre site now leased to a scaffolding company could become part of a larger park, and plans have been made to erect a boathouse on the property to allow for human-powered craft storage close to the water. No funding is yet available to build that boathouse, but Dowie is exploring funding sources.

While the transformation of the American Plating site has taken decades of on-again, off-again effort, the persistence of those pressing forward with the project is now paying off as it has for the rebirth of much of the waterway into a yacht-lined neighborhood populated with museums, condominiums and restaurants, linked by a waterfront esplanade.