Occidental cleanup plan set for early 2019

A recent open house by Citizens for a Healthy Bay, Department of Ecology and Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department brought people up to speed in anticipation of a draft cleanup plan later this winter. Photo by Steve Dunkelberger

What is known about the cleanup of the former Occidental Chemical Corp. site on the Hylebos Waterway is that it will not be cheap. It will take time and require technology that has yet to be invented. There is also likelihood that some unknowns could further complicate matters.

“What we do know is that we have to do something,” Department of Ecology Site Manager Kerry Graber said.

At issue is how much pollution can be cleaned up or even contained now and how much of the work will require advancements in technology to complete. Some cleanup scenarios inch toward a half a billion dollars and could involve work for 100 years.

Citizens for a Healthy Bay, Department of Ecology and Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department hosted an open house recently to bring people up to speed on the site and the complexities of cleaning up chemicals that are turning sand into jelly underneath a working waterfront as Ecology and Occidental are drafting a cleanup plan. That plan is expected to be out for public comment by the middle of next year, with the first steps of the actual cleanup starting in 2020.

The Occidental site, at 605 Alexander Ave., was listed on the federal registry of Superfund sites in the 1980s and is the last remaining cleanup site on the Tideflats. The plant, which was first operated by Hooker Chemical Corp. before being sold to Occidental Corp. in 1968, formulated ammonia, chlorine, bleaches and industrial petrochemicals for 90 years. It closed in 2002 but left two distinct plumes of heavy metals and volatile chemicals that span an area the size of five CenturyLink Fields and run deeper into the waterway’s soil than the Tacoma Dome is tall. Much of the pollution came from when there was limited understanding – and even fewer rules – about pollution and environmental stewardship.

“There is no one to get mad at,” Graber said, because the pollution occurred generations ago that is only now being addressed. “They didn’t intend to leave a mess for their children to deal with.”

And it might not be just the current generation that will be cleaning up the chemicals left behind from the plant. The pollution plume is growing, so nothing about the cleanup will be easy. About a million pounds of chemical waste from the plant is estimated to be in the soil of the former plant’s 23-acre site and in the sediment of the Hylebos. The pollutants include an alphabet soup of chemicals that range from chlorinated volatile organic compounds to sodium hydroxide, heavy metals, poly-chlorinated biphenyls and dioxins that were byproducts of the manufacturing process for chemicals used at pulp mills, boat builders, metal fabricators and dry cleaners.

The plan now is to figure out the ways to first keep the pollutants from spreading further and remove them whenever technically possible – that last part is the rub since the work will require yet-invented technology or processes. Current estimates put Occidental’s clean up bill between about $100 million to $450 million over the next generation. But that could all change if new ways of chemical cleanup become available.

The construction of a barrier wall around the site will help keep the chemicals on the site from spreading further. Water pumps could then even push the plume back, or at least keep it from spreading. The seemingly simple solution of drilling wells to pump out the chemicals would prove problematic since the chemicals turn the silica found in dirt into a gel because of their high pH levels – upward of 14.

“It’s like clear jelly,” Garber said, noting that the pumps would quickly clog with the goo and cause other problems.

Occidental is an international chemical company based in Dallas that mostly focuses on petroleum products these days. It also has about 150 cleanup sites around the nation that it is funding.

“It hasn’t stepped back from any of those sites,” Garber said. “They haven’t flinched from their duty in any of those communities.”

The Tacoma site, however, stands alone in its complexity and scope. None of those factors ultimately lower the price tag.

“I’m not out to save Occidental any money by any means,” Garber said, although noting that every cleanup option has a cost-to-benefit analysis that falls into the negotiations over pollution removal methods that haven’t been invented yet. Those realities mean that some work will likely happen sooner rather than later, followed by monitoring and more cleanups as procedures improve.

Citizens for a Healthy Bay Policy and Project Manager Erin Dilworth said the environmental group would like to have more monitoring and sampling done since the current cleanup effort uses computer simulations to estimate where the chemicals have flowed and seeped.

“The modeling can only do so much,” she said, noting that the cleanup will likely involve multiple locations and methods since the pollution is so wide spread.

“Due to the extent of the contamination at this site, the draft (feasibility study that was released last year) unreasonably discounts the removal of tens of thousands of pounds of contaminants in soil and groundwater since that amount of contaminants is considered to be relatively small compared to the overall size of the plume,” the group wrote in a 12-page letter to Ecology. “However, this assumes that each pound of contamination poses an equivalent risk to humans and the surrounding biota as the next pound. We argue that this assumption is unreasonable. Surface contamination that is not being addressed by pump-and-treat is likely a source of indoor air contamination. In addition, since Occidental’s porewater analysis does not adequately identify how likely the plume is to emerge from all affected locations in Commencement Bay, there may be areas of the plume that need additional remedial measures to prevent discharge. Until more is known, it is wise to assume that even seemingly small amounts of contamination pose a significant risk to Commencement Bay and its biota. Finally, it is imperative that the cleanup begins immediately with pump-and-treat, followed by a second phase of cleanup based on the selected remedy. In other words, the cleanup of these contaminants should not be allowed to languish for years until an acceptable remedy can be agreed upon.”

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