Group raises concerns over Superfund site cleanup plan

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A water-watching group hopes the current swell of environmental activism in Tacoma that started with the now-dead methanol plant and the tide of protests currently against Puget Sound Energy’s plan for a liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility would raises the awareness of a planned cleanup on the waterway that has largely floated under the waves for the last year.

Citizens for a Healthy Bay will host an open house alongside the state Department of Ecology and the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department from 4:30 to 7 p.m. on Nov. 28 in the Wheelock Room of the main branch of the Tacoma Public Library, 1102 Tacoma Ave. S. about the planned cleanup of the former Occidental Chemical Corp. site.

The purpose of the informal open house is to update people about the cleanup of the largest Superfund site left in the United States as the process heads into another round of reviews and public comment. The draft cleanup action plan could be out as soon as early 2019, almost two years after the cleanup’s feasibility review started and a year since the last round of public comments.

“We need people to get back engaged in it,” CHB Executive Director Melissa Malott said, noting that the draft plan calls for minimal cleanup that could leave pollutants in the ground and waterway for future generations to address. “This is the same old story for Tacoma. This has happened for the last 100 years, and it has to stop.”

Occidental wants a limited cleanup because the site is in an industrial area, and a full cleanup would be impractical. Environmental groups, on the other hand, want a fuller restoration of the last Superfund site on the Tideflats to be addressed. The draft cleanup plan being negotiated between Occidental Chemical and ecology calls for a cleanup that could cost $80 million over 30 years. Malott says that a fuller cleanup would run around $450 million during the same period.

“$80 million is a joke. That is horribly inadequate,” she said. “That is nothing to them.”

That amount is just about half of Occidental Chemical Corp.’s quarterly pretax profits, according to CHB.

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 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.

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.

“In some places, the pH is as high as 14, which is stronger than drain cleaner and enough to dissolve the rock into jelly,” CHB’s fact sheet on the cleanup states.

The pollution is not only linked to cancer and other ailments in people, but the chemicals threaten the health and habitat of the Chinook runs, the seals and waterfowl that call the waterway home.

“Chemicals may be seeping into Commencement Bay right now, and an earthquake or underwater landslide could result in an immediate and catastrophic release into the water,” according to CHB. “The pollution is so harsh and unsafe that, over time, it can also release the toxic, cancer-causing gas vinyl chloride.”

The site is located next to the 8 million-gallon LNG plant PSE is constructing despite vocal criticism from environmental groups and the Puyallup Tribe of Indians. CHB hopes the awareness of that project will spark interest in the Occidental site, known in cleanup circles as OxyChem, as the cleanup plan inches forward.

“It has been a while since anything has happened,” CHB’s Policy and Technical Project Manager Erin Dilworth said.

The open house will be an informal, drop-in format to provide attendees with information about the site’s history, the general industrial contamination found on the Tideflats as well as updates about the current process to begin cleanup efforts of the Occidental site specifically. It also comes at a time when activities on the working waterfront have never been watched more. The City Council, for example, just passed interim regulations that press pause on most developments on the Tideflats, while it undergoes a multi-year subarea plan. A recent public hearing about PSE’s project, for example, drew hundreds of people – mostly protesters who worry about the safety of the plan and its impact on the environment.

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