Large crowd shows to learn about Asarco pollution cleanup

Hannah Aoyagi, an outreach and education specialist for the DOE
Hannah Aoyagi, an outreach and education specialist for the DOE's Toxics Cleanup Program, addresses a large crowd at McMurray Middle School Wednesday night.
— image credit: Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo

Islanders came out in full force Wednesday night for a meeting to learn about and comment on the state's plan to test and clean yards contaminated by the Tacoma Smelter Plume.

Questions from the nearly 200 people who packed into the cafeteria at McMurray Middle School ran the gamut from doubts about the risk posed by the pollution and concerns about the cleanup process to an inquiry about growing berries in contaminated soil.

Representatives from the state Department of Ecology (DOE) gave a short presentation and stayed for more than an hour to answer a long list of questions — mostly posed by residents of Maury Island and southern Vashon Island, the areas on Vashon most affected by the historic pollution.

“You win the award for largest crowd at a meeting for DOE,” joked Hannah Aoyagi, a DOE Toxics Cleanup Program representative, at the beginning of the meeting.

In a cleanup program set to begin at the end of next year, the state is prepared to spend about $64 million on soil remediation at properties in the Puget Sound region with the highest levels of arsenic and lead contamination, including 2,400 residences on Vashon and Maury islands.

DOE representatives explained that properties with less severe contamination won't see state funds, though they recommended residents take precautions such as washing hands after handling soil.

“It sounds like a lot of money, but it's not enough to address every property that has over 20 parts per million,” said Amy Hargrove, who is with DOE's Soil Safety Program. “We don't have nearly enough money to clean up the entire plume area.”

There was a somber mood at the meeting. Some who spoke expressed frustration that their property was polluted, but none who spoke expressed anger at the state.

Many simply wanted to know more about the health risks posed by the contaminants.

Aoyagi, who helped lead the question-and-answer period, said that some people who have lived in the contaminated area for years have been found to have higher levels of arsenic in their bodies. And though scientists have linked arsenic exposure to a variety of health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer, studies have not shown higher instances of the diseases in the plume area.

“We have not shown a strong link between the Tacoma Smelter Plume and health impacts,” she said.

One woman seemed to question whether those in the contamination area were truly at risk.

“I've lived here for 17 years, and I don't know anyone who has gotten these diseases,” she said.

Aoyagi pointed out that the threshold for cleaning soil was high, based on a one in a million cancer risk.

“Our cleanup levels are somewhat conservative,” she said.

One man said it seemed unfair that his property value had gone down because of the pollution while there is no proven health risk. “It's sad,” he said.

When one woman in the front of the room suggested that owners of contaminated properties should get a break in their taxes, the room erupted into applause.

Bob Norton, a well-known fruit grower with a farm at his Maury Island home, asked if he should be concerned about his fruit.

“What is the possibility that the produce I'm growing and taking to the farmers market might be contaminated and I could be liable?” he asked.

Aoyagi said the only produce that is known to absorb the pollutants is lettuce and leafy greens. Then later when a young man asked whether any vitamins or supplements would prevent the body's absorption of the heavy metals, Aoyagi said she often recommends a diet high in leafy greens to get certain vitamins.

“But don't grow them directly on your site,” she added quickly, a comment met with laughter from the audience.

Some expressed frustration that the proposed testing program would begin in Tacoma. The neighborhood-by-neighborhood testing and cleanup is currently not planned to come to Vashon for another two or three years.

One man was worried the state may run out of funds before making it to the Island.

“You can't just leave us on this poison soil and say you're sorry,” he said.

Another man suggested that those who have already had soil tests done or pay to test their soil sooner should get the cleanup sooner as well.

“Is there any reason why you can't go ahead and do that?” he said.

Hargrove seemed open to the idea, and emphasized that the plan wasn't set in stone yet.

“That would be a great comment to put in writing,” she said. “You can say in a written comment that you'd like to be prioritized.”

And while seemed sure to turn in a written comment requesting that Vashon's polluted yards be addressed sooner than later — some even suggested the state should pay them for doing the work themselves — others seemed resigned to the process.

As one man commented, “I'm guessing it's not a good time to reseed my lawn.”


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