Vashon to benefit from Asarco settlement

A landmark payout last week from mining giant Asarco to state and federal agencies contains funds to sample soil and clean up contaminated parks, camps and residential properties on Vashon and Maury Island.

Asarco, which operated a smelter in Tacoma for nearly 100 years, paid state and federal governments $1.79 billion on Dec. 10 — money that will be used to clean up soils contaminated with heavy metals due to Asarco’s mining and smelting operations in 19 states.

The state of Washington was paid $188 million to repair environmental damages, including $111 million to remediate the 1,000-square-mile plume of contamination surrounding the Tacoma smelter, which operated from 1890 to 1985. The entirety of Vashon and Maury islands falls within the contamination plume area.

With the funds from the settlement in hand, the state will now begin crafting plans to clean up affected areas surrounding smelters in Tacoma and Everett, the B&L Woodwaste landfill in Tacoma and old mining sites in northwest and eastern Washington, according to a Department of Ecology press release.

“The Island will be included in a massive soil sampling and remediation program currently being planned,” Seth Preston, spokesperson for the state Department of Ecology, said in an e-mail.

Parks and private properties on Vashon and Maury Island suspected to be most contaminated will be tested first as part of the massive sampling and remediation effort, but it could take years before the planned program gets under way.

The Department of Ecology will first release an Interim Action Plan for the Tacoma smelter site in 2010. Then a detailed program will be designed for the sampling and remediation programs in 2011. The public will have a chance to comment on the program once it is released.

Following the plan’s approval, the most contaminated properties in North Tacoma and Ruston will be cleaned up first.

“It may be several years before we reach Vashon and Maury Island for this residential cleanup program,” Preston said. “However, we will continue to work with new child care (centers) and schools and address the play areas in parks and camps.”

Prior to this judgment, the state had already taken steps to clean up schools and child care facilities found to have contaminated soil through its Soil Safety Program.

Since 2000, the Department of Ecology took soil samples at 26 schools and child care facilities on Vashon and Maury.

Soil at seven of the sites was found to be contaminated with high levels of arsenic or lead. Two of the educational sites closed before the Soil Safety Program began, and four of the remaining five have been cleaned up in the past three years.

Chautauqua Elementary School and Vashon Island School District’s garden — now used as an educational garden for the high school’s horticulture class — were cleaned up in 2006 and 2007, Preston said.

Starbreak Montessori had work done in 2007, and Little Tree Montessori was cleaned up in 2008. Another small school, found to have levels of lead or arsenic above the recommended levels, declined to have its play area cleaned up, Preston said.

Soil sampling on Vashon and Maury Island has found contamination to be spotty but highest on the southern and eastern shores of Maury, according to the Department of Ecology.

“Here’s the things about the metal deposits — they don’t call them heavy for nothing,” said Islander Bill Tobin, a lawyer who represented an Island family in 1983 who sued Asarco due to contamination on their property from the Tacoma smelter.

“The concerns are when you disturb the soil,” he added — “any time people are digging in the dirt, either kids who like to dig or gardeners.”

Public Health — Seattle and King County has been reaching out to communities in King or Pierce counties, including Vashon and Maury, urging caution when coming in contact with dirt.

“Although there may not be immediate health concerns, there could be long-term health consequences, especially for children,” from contact with contaminated soil, according to an announcement published in the Beachcomber in October.

It’s recommended that Islanders wash hands after playing or working outside, always wash fruits and vegetables before eating, wear gloves while gardening and wash toys and pacifiers often.

Chronic exposure to heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and arsenic — which are found in areas contaminated by the Tacoma smelter — can be poisonous and cause serious health issues, such as neurological damage, short-term memory loss, learning disabilities and issues with coordination, according to the United Nations’ Earthwatch.

Officials are glad that Asarco, rather than the taxpayers, is picking up the tab for the needed remediation efforts in the state.

“In a philosophical sense, this sends a message to polluters — that you just can’t walk away if you inflict damage here in the state, that you’ll be held responsible,” Preston said. “This means we can move ahead and have the ability to clean (contaminated sites) up, rather than take money away from other projects.”

The settlement “enhances our ability to be able to do the cleanup work,” he added.

For more information about the Tacoma smelter plume, visit

the Department of Ecology web site.

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