High levels of PCBs uncovered near river
Seattle Times staff reporter
Soil samples associated with the massive effort to clean up the battered river corridor that bisects Seattle's industrial core showed high levels of the toxic chemical in road dust and topsoil at several sites along a four-block area near the South Park Marina south of downtown Seattle.
Environmental and public-health officials have not pinpointed the source and maintain there is no immediate health risk to residents. But they've gone door-to-door to urge residents to wash their hands, wear gloves while gardening and remove their shoes before entering their homes.
"The levels of contamination may be high, but exposure to [PCB] contaminated soil, in general, has not been shown to be a big problem," said Ngozi Oleru, director of environmental health at Public Health — Seattle & King County. "Any exposure should be avoided, but that pathway is not as significant as, say, eating contaminated fish."
Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are ubiquitous chemical compounds once used as coolants and lubricants in electrical equipment. Before they were banned in the United States in 1977, they were found in everything from lighting fixtures to hydraulic oils. The Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research on Cancer consider PCBs a probable carcinogen but maintain the greatest risk is to internal organs, such as the liver, from eating food laced with the compounds over many years.
State officials said testing has confirmed the problem is isolated to about a half-dozen homes, but they don't know whether it's affecting residents' indoor-air quality, or settling as dust on plates or food.
"Residents complained that they were getting an oily black dust settling in their houses, so it may be airborne," said Dan Cargill, a lower Duwamish cleanup manager with the state Department of Ecology. "It's possible someone has been tracking through this contaminated dirt for the last 30 years."
Helen Dexter, who has lived in the neighborhood near Dallas Avenue and 17th Avenue South for eight years, said the occasional smell of oil inside her home has convinced her there is something toxic in the air.
"Sometimes I have this overpowering oily smell in the air — the kind people describe as rotten eggs, or a newly tarred road," she said. "The last time I dusted off my TV, a real thick black stuff came off on the cloth. I couldn't even rinse it out."
The Washington state Department of Health is putting together a plan to sample the air inside residents' houses.
The area affected by the contamination is immediately south and east of the South Park Bridge, near where, until recently, oily debris seeped from the old Malarkey Asphalt Co. down the banks and into the river.
The Port of Seattle, which long ago acquired the land, is making plans to dredge and cap the worst of the contamination, but in April, environmentalists monitoring the cleanup urged the city and county to test the roadway, fearing the pollution had spread over the years.
Washington state requires PCBs to be removed from areas where they are found in quantities greater than 1 part per million.
Test results on the road itself last month showed levels ranging from just below 1 ppm to 9 ppm, especially in areas near where water forms puddles on an old dirt road and drains into an adjacent yard. But additional tests revealed late last week that the PCB levels in some neighboring yards were 20 parts per million or more, and, in one case, about 93 parts per million in the soil six inches below the surface.
The results caught the city by surprise. "The city figured they rarely find PCBs in street dust at any appreciable level," Cargill said. "But they're high enough we're now talking about digging out residential properties."
Beth Schmoyer, an engineer with Seattle Public Utilities, said this week surveyors will be doing prep work to remove six inches of soil from the dirt road near the intersection of Dallas Avenue and 17th Avenue South, redesign its drainage and then pave it. State and local officials are still working on plans to clean up yards.
Guy Crow, owner-operator of the South Park Marina, said "my overall impression is I don't think we're going to keel over and die. The city has been on this thing, and they're taking measures to clean it up."
B.J. Cummings, a full-time activist and coordinator for the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, said she was disappointed it took so long to have samples taken but has been satisfied with the response once they were taken.
"The [city and county] were surprised, but once they got the results back, they went immediately door-to-door," she said. "It's not an emergency. It's a long-term issue. But some of the residents have been here a long time, too."
While the Port of Seattle now owns the Malarkey site, it's not clear whether it will be asked to pay for the cleanup. Preliminary work alone is expected to cost about $300,000.
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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