Tacoma’s industrial history confronted Alex Stillman on a late spring morning while she was up to her wrists in front-yard dirt.
A neighbor saw the 27-year-old school nurse, part of the city’s influx of new homeowners, digging to plant a hedge outside her North 40th Street house and walked over to share some friendly insight about the neighborhood. The conversation sent Stillman inside to start learning things no real-estate agent or inspector had explained to Alex or her husband, Bryce, when they bought the place in fall 2014.
It fell to Google to tell her about the long-gone Asarco copper smelter that operated less than a mile from where her tidy 1940s bungalow stands, and that the lead and arsenic emitted from its 571-foot-tall smokestack for several decades had polluted her yard and thousands of others with agents linked to cancer and other serious health problems.
“How many people my age would even know what a smelter is?” asked Alex Stillman, who grew up in Snohomish.
The waterfront Asarco complex that straddled the borders of Ruston and north Tacoma shut down in 1985, before Alex Stillman was born. Thirty years later, its invisible legacy is having far-reaching effects on the South Sound landscape.
Millions of dollars of federal work have gone toward replacing the soil in the most-polluted yards, schools and parks near the old smelter over the decades. State officials are revisiting the same neighborhoods to truck out still more polluted dirt, using higher standards for what constitutes acceptable risk to residents, particularly children.
With Tacoma and Ruston experiencing a historic surge of newcomers who were not among the 100,000 who crowded streets to watch the January 1993 dynamiting of the smokestack, once the tallest structure in the U.S. West, it is fresh news to many that the smelter’s pollution remains underfoot at levels well above what state law defines as hazardous.
The core of the old industrial zone on the shore is being rebuilt as an urban center of residence and recreation atop safely capped soil, further masking the past.
County and state agencies run websites and advertisements to raise awareness of the contamination. The message can be easily missed.
Alex Stillman called the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department to ask questions shortly after her front-yard encounter.
A burly worker arrived on a cloudy July morning to extract soil samples from the Stillmans’ yard. He wore an orange safety vest and purple work gloves, and carried a narrow metal tube mounted on a shovel handle. He plunged the device into the Stillmans’ yard to pull out soil samples a foot beneath drought-browned grass.
While he dug, environmental health specialist Jeremy J. Bush gave friendly, practiced answers about why the government’s pollution cleanups are still going decades after the smelter closed. He told the Stillmans their lives would require more precautions than they expected when they bought their north Tacoma home.
Prior testing found levels of arsenic in their yard that were near the borderline of qualifying for the state’s soil replacement program, he explained.
He told them about growing vegetables in raised beds filled with clean soil, removing their shoes when they walked inside and wiping down outdoor pets’ feet before they enter the house. If the couple become parents, Alex should wear a mask to do any gardening while pregnant, Bush said.
“When it comes down to it, I was just an uninformed person running around working in my yard,” she said while Bush worked. “I didn’t put on gloves every single time, but now I will.”
Lead and arsenic occur in nature in some places, but they are also emitted as byproducts of the copper-smelting process. Both are toxic metals that carry a number of known long-term health threats, from developmental problems to cancer, when people inhale or ingest them. The Asarco smelter, long gone, scattered enough of each element in the soil and dust of the region that state officials still consider it a public-health threat.
The risks are difficult to quantify. No study has linked the Asarco pollution to any specific resident’s health problems. The state Department of Ecology says that’s because of the number of other potential contributing factors in modern life.
An Ecology spokesman wrote in an email, however, that the levels of toxic metals across much of the smelter’s 1,000-square-mile plume of pollution constitute “an increased risk for disease,” even in places long under scrutiny.
“This is out, still, in the soil,” said Amy Hargrove, the state Department of Ecology’s soil program manager for the smelter cleanup, “and it’s going to be out still in the soil 20 years from now or 30 years from now.”
Asarco and the federal Environmental Protection Agency started work in the 1980s to replace the tainted soils of thousands of homes in areas near the smelter site. State officials are now working the same neighborhoods offering cleanups to further reduce the pollution, yard by yard.
Dozens of homes and parks treated under the federal program now are eligible for more thorough work by the state. Some owners have refused to allow the repeated incursions.
“We’re trying very hard to be very clear about what the EPA did versus what the state is doing, but it’s definitely going to be confusing to them,” said Marian Abbett, the Ecology Department’s smelter plume project manager. “The government’s been out there for 30 years working on this.”
At least a dozen full-time employees of local, state and federal public agencies still go to work daily to deal with the smelter’s pollution. Contaminated soils from from Tacoma, Ruston and Vashon Island properties are still being shoveled out, trucked to a Graham landfill and replaced with new clean soil under government programs.
“I don’t think, with my time with Asarco, there was any sense that it was going to take that long,” said Karen Pickett. The former Ruston City Council member worked for Asarco on cleanup efforts and now is a contractor for the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
‘GRASPING FOR MORE INFORMATION’
Learning about estimated pollution for a single house’s yard and whether it has ever been measured by the government requires checks of two web databases and a call to the local health department. The EPA’s official completion report, compiled in 2013 when the Ecology Department took over yard cleanups and other programs, chronicles the effort in 5,811 pages.
State officials are short on information to fully gauge the health effects of the smelter’s arsenic and lead pollution.
Washington is not among the 15 states that requires universal childhood blood lead testing, and of those children who are tested, 40 percent of Department of Health records lack a home address for the child. The last widespread arsenic study of area children dates from 1988. No government effort is made to count occurrences of long-term illnesses tied to smelter pollution.
“It’s not to say that there hasn’t been concern over the years,” said Marianne Sullivan, a former epidemiologist for Public Health-Seattle and King County and author of “Tainted Earth,” a 2014 book about the smelter, “but it’s sort of episodic. It never has reached a sustained level of concern that has led to organization over this issue. ...
“It leaves people, I think, sort of grasping for more information,” she continued. “They’d like to know more exactly what the health risks are.”
As the Stillmans learned, nothing in state real-estate law requires information about potential Asarco smelter pollution to be supplied with a home purchase or rental, even at a time when U.S. Census Bureau estimates show Pierce County receiving thousands of new residents annually.
Realtor Marguerite Giguere, whose MovetoTacoma.com website, Twitter page and blog are targeted to newcomers, said no prospective buyer has asked her about the topic.
ASARCO’S SMELTER AND WHAT IT LEFT
The distribution of toxic metals across settled land in Tacoma and Ruston stems from how the cities accommodated heavy industry at the dawn of the 20th century. Other smelters in the U.S. were largely built away from developed areas.
“There isn’t another urban site in the U.S. that I’m aware of, with the magnitude of arsenic emissions and contamination that Ruston/Tacoma has,” Sullivan wrote in an email.
Ruston grew up as a company town around the facility. It opened as a lead smelter in 1890 and then was modified to refine higher-profit copper in 1912. When fumes and smoke from the smelter drew complaints from the surrounding neighborhoods, its smokestack was raised to disperse the bad stuff — first to 307 feet in 1905, then rebuilt in 1917 to 571 feet, the tallest chimney in the world.
This cut complaints by scattering widely the byproducts of the high-arsenic copper ore the smelter was built to purify through intense heat. Along with particles of arsenic and lead, the smelter put off noxious-smelling sulfur dioxide, which made the plant a conspicuous source of air pollution but has since dissolved away.
“They built this 500-foot stack with the idea that it would mitigate the impact,” said Bill Baarsma, Tacoma’s former mayor, who worked summers at Asarco while in college. “You spread it over a broader area, it would mitigate the impact.”
Then it ran for 68 years. The metals that came out of the smokestack accumulated underfoot, enduring even the most prolonged Pacific Northwest rainy seasons.
“Arsenic tends to bind, as well as lead, to the organic matter, so it kind of stays in that upper layer of soil,” said Abbett, the Department of Ecology manager. “It is moving, but it’s moving over geologic time. It’s moving very slowly.”
The broad dispersal of the smelter’s toxic emissions made removing the lead and arsenic buildups so vast an undertaking that no practical measure will completely eliminate it. Even modest attempts to clean up some of it were slowed for years by local politics.
With citizens of Tacoma and Ruston frustrated about Asarco’s decision to close the smelter — copper-using industries could by the 1980s get metal cheaper from overseas — it appeared to some that overzealous federal regulators helped run off a cornerstone industry.
“When we walked into the community, (people of) the local town of Ruston were convinced that EPA had shut down the smelter,” Kevin Rochlin, the EPA’s longtime project manager, said recently. “They didn’t want a cleanup, were incredibly vocal at our public meetings and said — we were told, ‘We don’t want you to do anything. If you have to do something, do it only for the worst properties.’ ”
Longtime residents recall ample reason to bristle at the incursion, starting with the stigma of labeling their homes a Superfund site. The Asarco plant had employed more than 1,300 workers at its peak. Crowds of children had been raised happily in the neighborhoods shouldered closest to it.
“They rode in on their white horses and challenged what kind of mothers we were and how could we let our children eat the dirt,” said Beth Torbert, who with her husband has operated Don’s Ruston Market, a grocery and lunch counter in the heart of Ruston, since 1983. “Generations of people had lived here and had done the best we could.”
LINGERING PUBLIC-HEALTH CONCERNS
Government officials have grappled for years with a problem of perception about the pollution’s consequences.
Arsenic and lead have punishing long-term effects. Arsenic can greatly increase the risk of skin or organ cancer. Even miniscule doses of lead can harm children’s developing brains and result in learning disabilities and violent behavior.
Children are especially vulnerable to being exposed to both through ingesting soil or dust. They play outdoors and aren’t always thorough about washing dirt off their hands before they touch food or put their fingers in their mouths.
“Most people hear arsenic and they immediately think of an acute risk and it’s poisoning, and that is not what we’re talking about,” Abbett said. “We’re talking about low levels at long-term exposure could lead to an increased risk of getting cancer later in life.”
Outreach officials teach that the long-range risk of cancer and other problems grows without day-to-day symptoms.
“What I tell people is, you probably can’t eat enough dirt in one day to get arsenic poisoning. You will get sick from something else first,” said Gregory Tanbara, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s smelter plume health promotion coordinator.
A series of government-researched maps chart the toxic metals the smelter left in the South Sound region, but no such maps exist for illnesses related to the lead and arsenic — or the cadmium and mercury believed to be among other byproducts of the smelting — over the years.
“Studies to quantify the range of possible health effects have not been done — disappointing but not unusual in U.S. smelting communities,” author Marianne Sullivan wrote.
Almost all of the 15 states that require lead testing of all children lie entirely east of the Mississippi River. Iowa and Louisiana are the only exceptions.
Children in Washington are required to be tested for lead in their blood only if they’ve emigrated from another country, receive Medicaid or if a caregiver suspects lead poisoning. The state Department of Health’s Childhood Blood Lead Registry compiles the results of every test, but it tracks entries only by county. No home address is listed for 40 percent of the children tested.
“Sometimes we’re just using the address of the (health care) provider, because that’s all we sometimes get,” said Elisabeth Long, childhood lead poisoning surveillance epidemiologist with the state Department of Health.
Pierce County’s rate of blood-tested children under age 6 who were found to have high lead levels tracked to within 1.5 percent of the statewide rate in each year from 2006 to 2012, Health Department data show. But results from Ruston and north Tacoma aren’t differentiated from those from Puyallup or Orting, where little to no smelter pollution is indicated on the state’s maps.
“We can’t generalize this to anything, really, because we don’t have enough information about who’s being screened,” Long said.
As for arsenic: The last large-scale resident testing in the smelter’s plume was in 1988. That year, a test of children near the former Asarco site was compared with a 1974 survey, when the smelter was still going strong. It found that even though the smelter had gone dark, arsenic was still finding its way into children’s bodies. A 1993 EPA report summarized the study: “Arsenic levels had generally declined since smelter closure. Some individuals, however, still had elevated levels.”
No systematic testing is done of the people who live in the smelter’s plume. The arsenic and lead content of the area’s soils are measured carefully. Those findings determine whether the government will foot the cost of shoveling out and replacing the soil of a yard, park or area where children play, such as a school or day care, as Alex Stillman learned from her neighbor.
The test itself is quick and done locally, in a squat Fife industrial building where dirt has been coming for Asarco-related analysis for 15 years.
TestAmerica’s inorganics supervisor, Stan Palmquist, who founded the Fife lab, describes the process as “real straightforward.” Yard dirt comes into his building in 4-ounce glass jars, is sifted into smaller tubes, treated with hydrochloric and nitric acid, then given a “digestion” heating at more than 200 degrees for 90 minutes to break it down.
After that, it’s burned with a plasma torch. The light thrown off by the fire is analyzed by computer equipment that tells what chemicals are present, and in what densities. Some of the wavelengths are visible to the human eye. Copper turns the flame green and lithium red, for example. With this method, TestAmerica can process up to 60 yard samples a day, Palmquist said.
He lives in a North End neighborhood and tested his own yard soil years ago.
“It was fine,” he said, smiling slightly.
CLEANUPS AFTER CLEANUPS
Records go back to the 1980s on the thousands of yards that have been shoveled up for sampling. Sorting through them can be a challenge because of the three layers of government — federal, state and local — that have overseen aspects of the program over the years, sometimes in overlapping efforts.
First came the EPA, to the chagrin of a vocal number of residents from Ruston and nearby, which used the courts to force Asarco to clean up the most heavily polluted land within a 1 square mile area around the smelter. After Asarco’s bankruptcy settlement in 2009, the EPA handled cleanups itself.
From 1993 to 2011, Asarco and the EPA lab-tested 3,570 properties’ soils for pollution, and 2,436 of them had at least a section of soil replaced.
To qualify for a paid-for cleanup, federal regulators set a threshold of 230 parts per million of arsenic in yard soil, or 500 parts per million of lead. This was 11.5 times the amount of arsenic in soil that state law defines as polluted enough to deserve cleanup, and twice the amount of lead.
During the years the EPA worked on the area immediately around the smelter, Washington officials conducted studies to draw maps showing how much farther the smelter’s lead and arsenic spread.
Washington law considers the maximum acceptable risk to be an amount of toxic pollution that creates a 1 in 100,000 chance the exposure will cause cancer in an individual. Under the Superfund law, the EPA can sign off on pollution levels that allow a 1 in 10,000 lifetime cancer risk.
“We said, you know, we just aren’t sure that’s protective enough, and we let them know that,” Abbett, of the state Ecology Department, said of the EPA’s efforts. “Certainly, over time, we got to understand how much bigger the project was, how much larger the project was.”
The state’s evidence showing a need for a a wider cleanup for the pollution surrounding Tacoma won it a $94 million share of Asarco’s $1.79 billion bankruptcy settlement. That money will fund the Ecology Department’s cleanup work for about the next decade, which is largely sampling and cleaning up polluted soil in residential yards, schools and parks, along with outreach efforts.
Even the rosiest forecast for what the state can accomplish in the next 10 years doesn’t claim the Asarco-polluted land will be scrubbed clean of arsenic and lead by the definition in state law before the money runs out.
The state’s Model Toxics Control Act sets the cleanup threshold for arsenic at 20 parts per million of soil. For lead, it’s the presence of 250 parts per million milligrams of soil. But the state is spending its settlement money to clean up only yards with arsenic pollution at or above 100 parts per million or lead pollution above 500 parts per million. Officials say it’s a realistic approach.
“This gap here from 20 to 100 (parts per million) is one that can’t be filled with funds that they have from that bankruptcy,” Tanbara said, “because they would basically be scraping off all of north Tacoma.”
Using this threshold in zones where the most pollution accumulated, the Ecology Department expects to offer cleanups for 1,200 properties. On average, this means removing and replacing 150 cubic yards of soil, plus grass and plantings, at a per-yard cost of about $50,000.
Because the campaign is working first in the same areas the federal government cleaned, with different standards, it is bringing state officials around to knock on many of the same doors EPA workers came to years ago. In 2013 and 2014, the state cleaned up 55 properties in Tacoma and six on Vashon Island. Another 90 properties — 75 in Tacoma and 15 on Vashon Island — will have received yard cleanups by the end of 2015.
Records of the federal yard cleanup program — searchable by address on a Department of Ecology website — show that each yard was divided into sections for sampling and cleanup. A section of yard that fell even slightly below the federal threshold wasn’t touched, even if the soil feet away was replaced in the cleanup.
Now the state, using its easier-to-qualify standard, is offering to clean up more than the federal government did, which can mean digging into the same yard twice.
That offer isn’t always greeted warmly.
That’s bull, said Dennis Stine, using an expletive. Stine, with his wife, Jennifer, bought a house on North 41st Street in 2013 after moving from California. “If the work was done to the EPA standard, we said that is good enough.”
The Stines are retired, have no pets or children in their home, and they don’t grow food in their yard. A letter from the Health Department — which searches Pierce County’s public records to learn when known polluted properties are sold — had informed the couple of the property’s pollution history shortly after they moved in.
When a previous owner lived there, EPA divided its yard into four sections in 2004, found three of them saturated with high levels of lead and replaced the soil. Tests in 2006 confirmed that shoveling out bad soil and bringing in new brought the lead content below the EPA’s threshold but also revealed that two sections contain arsenic content easily above the required amount to have the state clean the yard at no cost.
Dennis Stine said he felt “strong-armed” by the Ecology Department’s offer to replace his soil.
“They were saying if you didn’t do it and sell the house, you’ll have to do it then” without the state’s help, he said. “I wasn’t buying that.”
The state’s cleanup program remains voluntary, and real-estate transactions require only a general acknowledgment of whether the seller knows of toxic pollution.
Rosemary Cowan and her husband, Alan, moved from California into a North Defiance Street Craftsman house this year and reveled in its sweeping balcony view of the South Sound. After their purchase appeared on the county assessor’s rolls, a Health Department letter arrived, offering a spot on the state’s cleanup list.
Federal testing in 1997 found arsenic levels in every section of the yard that now place it above the state’s threshold, records show, but only a section with lead above the federal threshold was replaced.
Even though the couple keeps a pair of Irish wolfhounds who wander in and out freely, they say they are unlikely to sign up for soil replacement after discussing the situation with the previous owner, who is a contractor.
“He literally put about a foot of topsoil on the problem places,” said Rosemary Cowan, 60.
As for longtime residents of the smelter area, they’ve spent years incorporating extraordinary measures into their lives and dealing with scrutiny, Torbert said.
“Do you know the arsenic and lead levels in your yard?” Torbert asked. “We do. That’s the thing. We know we’re clean. We’ve been remediated, and we’ve been tested.”
Former Ruston council member Pickett, whose work with Asarco included providing information to people eligible for yard cleanups in the program’s early years, said she saw views evolve over the years.
“The philosophy's changed quite a bit, as far as reaction to the cleanup,” she said. “Once the cleanup got underway and yards got cleaned up, I think the perception was pretty strong we were a clean community and attractive.”
State officials say 33 property owners, including Stine, had refused the offered cleanup. The EPA’s completion report, prepared in 2013, lists 21 more properties whose owners refused even testing. Only one owner in that group has allowed testing since the state took over yard cleanups. Soil samples taken this April from his front and backyards were high enough to put his entire property on the state’s soil replacement list.
State records show the owner received a letter in May that was frank about where he stands.
“Ecology will contact you in the next few years to discuss soil replacement options for your yard,” the letter reads.
THE PROBLEM, 30 YEARS LATER
Learning exactly what’s been cleaned up — and where levels of pollution the law classifies as dangerous haven’t been cleaned — requires persistence.
The Ecology Department offers two enter-your-address maps: one shows the general arsenic findings for an area, and the other lists results of any state or federal testing of the soil for lead and arsenic. But because the latter database lacks results for Health Department-conducted sampling, obtaining definitive information requires an additional phone call.
The difficulty of becoming informed about this pollution — particularly for newcomers to Tacoma who never saw the smelter — is not new. When the EPA was seeking comments in 1992 about its proposed cleanup plan, Ken Wing, who had just bought a home near Point Defiance Park, complained to the agency that potential property owners received little solid information.
“I was shown lots that were contiguous with the Asarco plant and was told by one of the largest real estate firms in the Puget Sound area … that the ‘arsenic problem’ was merely a fiction created by government bureaucrats,’ ” he wrote.
The EPA proposed in the early 1990s to require deed notices of potential Asarco pollution in area real-estate transactions. Residents’ concerns about property values led to the idea’s rejection, Sullivan wrote in her doctoral dissertation about the smelter. State laws governing real-estate transactions don’t address the subject.
Officials with the Ecology and Health departments say they’ve worked to encourage disclosure and explanation to potential newcomers.
“We’re doing outreach with real-estate agents right now,” Hargrove said.
With no law requiring even an informational letter among the myriad documents involved in house-buying, the Stillmans say they received no help learning there was a database to consult.
“You would think that would be just as mandatory,” Alex Stillman said. “ ‘You’re buying in this area, do you understand that there is possibly arsenic and lead in the soil?’ We would have no idea if our neighbors wouldn’t have said something.”
A few blocks away from the Stillmans’ home, Department of Ecology contractors in bulky protective masks spent weeks digging out soil from Baltimore Park, the fifth park to undergo large-scale soil replacement since the state took over cleanup efforts.
Becky Hill, whose children are 4 and 6, has lived blocks from Baltimore Park for 12 years and grew up in north Tacoma herself. She said nearby housing construction had kicked up dirt through the summer drought.
She taught her children to be careful about handling dirt, explaining that a smokestack they’d never seen was the reason why. She had assumed the neighborhood’s public spaces had been adequately cleaned up years ago, when the EPA cleaned Baltimore Park.
Then she saw the state’s contractors back in the park and began to worry.
“I didn’t know that they hadn’t done the park over there,” she said from her front yard, “which freaked me out because we’ve been taking our kids there since they were born.”
Similarly, Point Defiance Park, cleaned up by the EPA in 2009, is to receive further state soil replacement in the coming year.
RESCULPTING THE INDUSTRIAL WATERFRONT
The EPA hasn’t totally finished its Asarco work, 32 years after the area was officially registered as a Superfund site.
Federal officials are overseeing the construction of two high-profile waterfront developments: the 97-acre Point Ruston housing and retail complex, and a Metro Parks project to build an 11-acre park using the slag peninsula created when Asarco workers dumped the solid-waste lead and arsenic directly into Puget Sound.
Out on the peninsula, where Puget Sound currents are forcing apart chunks of brittle toxic slag, workers are “armoring” the shoreline with large rocks to keep more contaminants from breaking loose. Tons of contaminated dirt from a larger parking lot and other onshore Metro Parks excavations are being moved atop the slag to build up mounds on the peninsula, to be capped off with a foot of clean soil.
So much dirt is being moved that the peninsula’s highest point will rise 24 feet above its current level, said Roger Stanton, Metro Parks’ project manager for the new park.
“We’re saving millions of dollars by being able to put dirt out here, especially contaminated dirt,” he said.
Designs for the site include running paths and a performance space atop what was a slag peninsula. Still visible near its shoreline are a handful of waist-high slag mounds rounded off like the iron kettles used to haul hot slag for industrial dumping in a less-regulated era.
“Some could be proud of the peninsula, and some could be less proud of the peninsula,” Stanton said. “Regardless, our community has this opportunity right now to make this thing really shine.”
The park’s budget is about $40 million, which could change considerably. The complexities of building on toxic material are accompanied here by weather restrictions and limits on water-adjacent work when fish are sensitive to sedimentation.
“That’s a slag pile, and in 2017, that park is going to be amazing,” Stanton said.
Within sight of the future park, construction has rolled along for years on Point Ruston, the $1 billion project to erect shops, restaurants, a movie theater, condominiums and apartments where the smelter’s immense fine ore bins building once stood. There, toxic soils have either been trucked away or covered with permanent construction, including parking lots and buildings.
Opening this month are the complex’s nine-screen movie theater and its second building of apartments and condominiums, said Loren Cohen, the project’s manager of legal affairs. He said 90 percent of the housing units in the new building are already taken.
Its completion brings Point Ruston to 268 apartments and 83 condominiums fit for occupancy atop the former smelter site, where the soil is now capped and considered safe. When Point Ruston is complete, six to eight years from now, 1,200 housing units will be part of it, along with a grocery store and hotel.
So far, 20 percent of the takers of apartments and condos in the complex have been newcomers from King County, the developer said.
“It’s the new urbanism model,” Cohen said. “Make it walkable, make it pedestrian-oriented, make it dense, so that you’re efficiently using our finite resources. And to boot, it’s what we would argue is the most beautiful setting in the area.”
The garbage cans along the Point Ruston’s waterfront walking path show a painting of the smokestack’s implosion, with “A New Dawn” inscribed on them. In October 2014, an Asarco history exhibit opened on the ground floor of the development’s Copperline building, with smelter relics and captions written by Pickett.
“When the smelter first opened, it wasn't seen as dirty and bad,” Pickett said. “It was a sign of pride for the whole nation to be able to produce our own copper, and it was a great resource during World War I and II. I guess, back then, everything was dirty and smelly. We didn’t have the same concept of environmental concerns.”
Cohen said the safety concerns and negotiations with various levels of government helped make the project “a monumental challenge” and “a mammoth undertaking” for even an experienced developer.
“I don’t know if we’d ever do a second Superfund site,” he said. “I can’t say I would. I can’t say I wouldn’t.”
STILL LEARNING ABOUT RISKS
Even with the long-known problems the Asarco smelter bequeathed to today’s South Sound, officials and researchers are still finding new aspects to scrutinize.
For most of the past 30 years, arsenic — known for decades to cause cancer — has been the chief concern of those seeking to clean up the smelter’s ground pollution. Under the separate state and federal soil replacement campaigns, the amount of arsenic found in soil that would trigger a cleanup was set lower than the amount of lead.
Officials are reconsidering that approach.
Just last year, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set a new, lower definition for the amount of lead found in a child’s blood test that would call for action. The agency’s position now is that there is no safe amount of lead a child can ingest without troubling consequences to intelligence and attention.
“We are far more concerned about lead than we were 25, 30 years ago,” said Abbett, from the Ecology Department. “We are better understanding its impacts, and realizing maybe we should have even more stringent cleanup levels for lead.”
Another concern of recent vintage is water pollution. Officials have long realized that lead and arsenic aren’t mobile enough in soil to seep into groundwater supplies at anything faster than geologic speed. The depth and currents of Puget Sound are among the reasons much of the lead and arsenic the smelter scattered into the waters now shows up in reduced amounts in the body’s waters.
An analysis published in an academic journal in 2013, however, found that the same pollutants have hung around the area’s freshwater basins in worrisome amounts. Sediment samples from 26 lakes within 20 miles of the smelter’s smokestack found “significantly elevated” amounts of arsenic and lead in 10 of the 12 lakes downwind of the smelter, but only in a few of the upwind lakes.
Angle Lake and Lake Killarney, both in South King County, had levels of arsenic more than six times a level the Department of Ecology cites as a concentration “above which harmful effects on sediment-dwelling organisms are expected to occur frequently.” The highest lead concentration was found in Steel Lake in Federal Way, where the analysis found more than 10 times the corresponding state-defined threshold.
James E. Gawel, the University of Washington Tacoma professor who was the paper’s lead author, said studies haven’t been done yet to evaluate how arsenic moves up the food chain.
Gawel said lakes in populated areas are particularly susceptible to having arsenic make its way from sediment into water. The metal is most mobile in the oxygen-poor depths that urban runoff fosters. He’s now beginning a two-year study of how much arsenic is absorbed by the microscopic organisms in the lakes with the highest amounts of Asarco-polluted sediments.
“I was surprised at just how much got loaded into these systems,” he said.
NEWCOMERS TO POLLUTED LAND
Census estimates released in March show Pierce County experienced an influx of 4,300 people in 2014, all newcomers to the county from other places, marking an abrupt turnaround after years of mostly dead-even net migration from other U.S. counties. The abundance of cheaper urban housing in Tacoma versus Seattle is often cited as a central factor.
The rising tide of newcomers hasn’t drawn a corresponding uptick of interest in Sullivan’s book on the smelter since its 2014 publication by a university press. The book has been read mostly by her fellow professors and researchers, its author said.
“That’s who reads academic books, unfortunately,” said Sullivan, now an assistant professor of public health at William Paterson University in New Jersey.
Future residents of Tacoma, Ruston and Vashon Island will have the same daunting task of educating themselves as today’s newcomers, she said, adding that cleanup should have gone farther. One way: The removal of tainted attic dust that the EPA performed near Montana’s Anaconda smelter but not here.
“If you can clean it up, you don’t have to engage in a constant process of educating people as they come into the community,” she said.
Asked what she wished was more widely known about the Asarco-related lead and arsenic, 30 years after the plant’s closure, Abbett of the Ecology Department said the best hope is public education about the persistence of toxic pollution, even in airborne dust on a yard-grown apple.
“It’s there. It’s probably in your backyard and your front yard,” she said. “It’s nothing to be frightened about, but it’s something to think about and take extra precautions.”
Bryce and Alex Stillman waited all summer and into the fall for their test results. They decided not to plant anything while they waited.
“We still mow the lawn and things like that, but we’re still holding off on the digging,” she said. “You don’t want them to dig it all up after you do all that work.”
The Stillmans learned their home’s test results Wednesday. The front yard where Alex Stillman dug, barehanded, to plant her hedge contains enough arsenic to qualify for a state soil replacement. They expect a letter from the Ecology Department to arrive soon. It likely will inform them that they have a year or more before their turn comes for a cleanup.
Alex Stillman said definitive knowledge of the pollution has already altered her habits.
“Me wearing gloves this time, that’s changed,” she said by phone. “I’m still out there in the yard, but that’s what I’m wearing out there for caution.”