Asarco contaminated soil removal continues in Pierce County

The Washington State Department of Ecology announced Thursday crews are digging up contaminated soil at 90 yards in Pierce and King counties as part of the continuing Tacoma Smelter Plume cleanup.

Five different contractors are removing dirt from 75 yards in Tacoma and 15 yards on south Vashon-Maury Island, and expect to finish work by late December. The soil is taken to approved landfills for disposal. The yards are contaminated with arsenic and lead spread by air emissions from the former Asarco smelter in North Tacoma. The Tacoma Smelter Plume encompasses a 1,000-square-mile area in Pierce, King, and Thurston counties.

The levels of arsenic and lead in the yards are high enough to pose a long-term risk, but not an immediate danger, according to Washington State Department of Ecology officials. Long-term exposure can harm people’s health. Lead is linked to developmental disabilities in children and may affect mental development. Arsenic may cause cancer later in life and may also contribute to heart disease. People can be exposed by accidentally ingesting or inhaling contaminated soil. Children are especially at risk because they put dirty hands and toys in their mouths, and because they are still growing and developing.

People can take healthy actions to protect themselves and their families. Actions include washing hands after contact with soil, and taking shoes off when entering a house to prevent the spread of dirt and dust.

In 2009, the state of Washington received a settlement from Asarco, including $94.6 million to pay for cleanup of the Tacoma Smelter Plume. The Washington Department of Ecology’s Toxics Cleanup Program is using those funds to remove soil from yards and play areas at childcares and parks with the highest levels of contamination.

Starting in 2013, Ecology has overseen cleanup of 61 yards in Tacoma and Vashon-Maury Island, 86 child-care facilities across Pierce and King County, and 21 parks. The latest park cleanups are winding down at Baltimore and Optimist parks.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department is sampling other properties in the smelter plume for possible future cleanup.

To read the Tacoma Daily Index’s complete and comprehensive coverage of cleanup efforts related to the former Asarco copper smelter site in Tacoma, click on the following links: