ASARCO settlement money funds new soil cleanups

With ASARCO environmental damage settlement dollars secured and the Legislature’s support, the Washington Department of Ecology Ecology is planning the next phase of arsenic and lead cleanup associated with a century of operations at the former ASARCO Smelter near Tacoma.

Ecology is laying the groundwork now so sampling and cleanup at play areas in public parks, camps and public housing can begin in earnest this summer. These properties are within a 200 square-mile geographic “service area” that includes the most highly contaminated portions of the Tacoma Smelter Plume — an area of widespread soil contamination from airborne emissions from the former smelter. The Legislature provided Ecology $3.9 million to cover the costs of sampling and cleanup this next year.

Rep. Dave Upthegrove (D-Des Moines), who sponsored legislation in 2005 to require playground testing and cleanup, says this funding was a high environmental budget priority this year. “Soil contamination is a serious health concern for Puget Sound communities,” said Upthegrove. “Parents should not have to worry about environmental toxins when they take their kids to school or the playground. This is the least we can do to protect children’s health.”

Children are at the greatest risk for harm from exposure to toxic chemicals, such as arsenic and lead. Ecology’s Soil Safety Program focuses on reducing or eliminating risk from the worst contamination in the Tacoma Smelter Plume by testing and cleaning up soils in areas where children play.

“The first phase of the Soil Safety Program successfully cleaned up play areas at schools and privately owned childcares to keep children from coming into contact with remnants of Asarco’s toxic legacy,” said Rebecca Lawson, Ecology’s regional Toxics Cleanup Program manager. “We still have areas with high levels of contamination. With the ASARCO settlement in hand and the Legislature’s approval to use that money, we’re gearing up to tackle more of the work.”

The state successfully argued in federal court that Washington should receive a portion of ASARCO’s bankruptcy payouts to settle the company’s environmental damage here in the state. Washington’s settlement netted $188 million to pay back the state for past ASARCO-related cleanup costs and fund further cleanup of the highest contaminated areas.

Prior to the December 2009 settlement, Ecology paid for cleanups at schools and childcare out of the state toxics funding.

Ecology developed for the Legislature a 10-year plan that shows how it will use the settlement money to clean up remaining ASARCO-related environmental damage at various smelter, landfill and mine locations across the state. The work to address cleanup in the most contaminated parts of the Tacoma Smelter Plume area alone could total an additional $94 million over what’s been spent to date.

Ecology already is talking with property owners and land managers of parks, camps and public housing in the service area. Ecology can begin sampling July 1, 2010. The state cleanup levels for arsenic and lead in soil are 20 parts per million (ppm) and 250 ppm, respectively. Ecology will clean up play areas with results that average above those cleanup levels or that have a reading of 40 parts ppm arsenic or 500 ppm for lead in one location.

Arsenic can cause health problems in people, including heart disease, diabetes and various cancers. Lead can cause behavior problems, permanent learning problems and stunt physical growth. Effects on the human body are based on amount of exposure over time.

Children are more vulnerable because they tend to put dirty fingers and toys into their mouths. Contaminated soil is one way children can ingest arsenic and lead.

Ecology developed a number of soil safety publications in partnership with Public Health – Seattle & King County, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department and the Washington Department of Health. View the Soil Safety Program question-and-answer document available on Ecology’s Web site — .

Ecology will update the public on sampling work using the agency’s ECOconnect blog — .