Ending legacy of Asarco is worth hassle

From the editorial board

A worker with MRC Construction helps backfill clean soil (lower right) after contaminated soil was removed from a property in the Asarco plume zone on 48th Street in Ruston.
A worker with MRC Construction helps backfill clean soil (lower right) after contaminated soil was removed from a property in the Asarco plume zone on 48th Street in Ruston. News Tribune file photo

Apparitions of the old Asarco smelter that straddled the border of Ruston and North Tacoma continue to haunt the South Sound, 30-plus years after production shut down and 20-plus years after the massive smokestack was knocked down. Neighborhood activists recently evoked the memory of Asarco, a dirty-industry touchstone, to help stoke opposition against a now-defunct plan to produce methanol on the Tacoma Tideflats.

But the long shadow cast by the Asarco site is not merely occupied by the ghosts of environmental degradation past. Even now, after many years of sustained cleanup, deposits of arsenic and lead permeate the soil across a 1,000-square mile plume in three counties where airborne contaminants touched down during a century of copper smelting.

This is why public health specialists, during this spring’s mini-panic over lead found in residential and school water fixtures, were quick to point out the greater threat to families in the region: lead in old house paint and in the soil.

The Washington Department of Ecology has committed to picking away at the problem, one house, park and child care center at a time. Ecology officials are now entering their busy season. They plan to replace soil in the yards of about 80 North Tacoma homes this summer.

Give the state credit for stepping up its pace of work over the last three years; it cleaned up 55 properties in Tacoma in 2013 and 2014, and another 75 by the end of 2015. Over the next decade or so, it intends to restore around 1,200 Tacoma, Ruston and Vashon properties.

Ecology has appropriately taken a more aggressive stance with play areas and public gathering spaces, using a lower pollution threshold to determine when to bring in the bulldozers. Over the last 10 years, crews have replaced soil at 86 child cares, 25 schools and 24 parks. (In some wooded or otherwise inaccessible cleanup areas, they’ve posted warning signs instead.)

Some of the biggest community spaces that have received new ground cover: Vassault Park in 2014, Baltimore and Optimist parks last year, and Fort Nisqually Park last winter. Temporary shakeups to sports fields and public events, such as the Sound to Narrows, are a worthwhile tradeoff for long-term public health and peace of mind.

Those who live, work or play regularly in the Asarco downwind zone ought to consider attending one of the information sessions scheduled in the next month. The purpose is to shed light on voluntary yard sampling, technical assistance and a wider outreach by the state and the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.

Some property owners eligible for free yard testing and replacement have ignored letters sent in the mail and spurned Ecology door knockers. The reasons are varied, and to some degree understandable: the hassle of having their land torn up, the stigma of having their most valuable asset associated with a Superfund site, or perhaps an aversion to dealing with government bureaucrats.

Some also might not understand why they should let the state sniff around their yards again, when the feds already did it years ago. (The reason: The state adopted a stricter standard for deposits of cancer-causing heavy metals than the federal Environmental Protection Agency used when it was in charge of the Asarco cleanup before 2013.)

What homeowners might miss out on is new soil, grass and other plantings with an estimated per-yard value of $50,000, funded by the Asarco bankruptcy. Some would consider that hitting the landscaping jackpot.

The more people who accept the invitation, the better. In time, it might help this community exorcise the ghosts of a long-dead smelter.

Information meetings

▪ Tuesday (May 24), 6:30-8 p.m.: Point Defiance Elementary School (cafeteria), 4330 N. Visscher St., Tacoma.

▪ June 14, 7-8:30 p.m.: McMurray Middle School (cafeteria), 9329 SW Cemetery Road, Vashon.