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Tainted Sludge On Its Way To County

Waste coming from Seattle Superfund site

Approximately 70,000 cubic yards of contaminated dredgings are likely to soon be on the way from Seattle to the Rabanco Regional Disposal Co. landfill in Roosevelt, but county officials contend the material is not hazardous.

Activists in the region had been fighting a plan to move dredgings from Seattle's Duwamish River to an aquatic site on property owned by the Port of Tacoma. The Tacoma City Council recently voted to object to disposal of the material in the Tacoma area, and public opposition to the plan was significant.

Partly as a result of that opposition, the material is now expected to be shipped by rail to Klickitat County.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently declared the whole Duwamish River a Superfund site, due to contamination caused by outfall from King County's sewer and stormwater drain system.

The river sludge allegedly contains PCBs, mercury, and other cancer-causing substances.

"PCBs are cancer causing materials. We know that for a fact," said Leslie Ann Rose, senior policy analyst for Citizens for a Healthy Bay in Tacoma, a coalition formed to help protect Tacoma's Commencement Bay from environmental abuse. "But silt and sand on land wouldn't be considered at a threshold to be a problem. That's the science behind the whole thing. It's too contaminated to be in an aquatic environment, but if it's at an upland site it's probably not required to be cleaned up."

Tim Hopkinson, director of Klickitat County's Solid Waste Department, said the material would not present a hazard when it is in the county landfill.

"That stuff isn't going anywhere," Hopkinson explained. "The landfill is double-lined. None of it is considered hazardous. There are some PCBs and mercury and other heavy metals, but not to a level where it could be characterized as hazardous waste. Upland disposal is the best way to dispose of this, and we have the best landfill in the entire state."

Hopkinson added that the sludge would actually be beneficial to the county's landfill facility in Roosevelt.

"The main thing is, this adds moisture to the landfill. We have a moisture deficit now, because there is not enough moisture to make stuff break down," Hopkinson explained. "This is something we've been working on for quite awhile. It will bring the moisture level up, so material will break down quicker. Sludge is a good thing."

Nevertheless, Rose questioned moving the material to Klickitat County.

"The whole concept of the opposition is, don't start moving things from one community to another and call it cleanup," she said. "PCBs are one of the most common contaminants. That's one of the toxins that shows up most frequently, and it doesn't break down in the environment. We used to use PCBs for everything. Our technology outstripped our knowledge, so we have to go back and deal with a legacy of ignorance. We have to get it right this time, so the next generation won't have to clean it up again."

Tacoma's city manager, Jim Walton, was quoted in the Tacoma News Tribune as saying he was "elated" to learn that the hazardous sludge would be shipped to Klickitat County instead of Tacoma.

That attitude riled at least one local resident.

"What got me was a quote in the newspaper, where they said they were happy with the decision, and that they were hoping `this will solve our problems with dumping this on another community,'" said Marc Harvey, a Lyle resident and former commissioner with the Port of Klickitat. "But here, lo and behold, they're dumping it on us."

Rose pointed out, however, that Tacoma's concern was not necessarily related to the contamination level or potential hazards from the dredged material.

"It's just that, for about the last year, anytime anyone had anything they wanted to get rid of, they wanted to send it to Tacoma," Rose explained. "That, and there has has been a lack of public process. The Port of Tacoma and King County worked this [the original plan] out between themselves without public involvement."

Hopkinson said the contaminants came from an area south of where the Kingdome used to be in Seattle.

"It was pretty polluted," he said. "There are 100-plus years of industrial facilities down there: foundries, smelters, wood processing, even chicken farms. How many tons it will be is anybody's guess. That sludge is going to be heavy, because it's wet."

Dredging of the Duwamish River is set to start this November and be completed by February 2004.

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