Economic redevelopment leads to toxic cleanups

In Washington state, economic redevelopment is helping identify where toxic contamination needs to be cleaned up.

“While land owners and industry are acting more responsibly with toxic materials, we are discovering more historic contamination as economic development is picking up,” said Jim Pendowski, the lead toxic-cleanup manager for Ecology. “Property deals and development continue to bring sites into the system, making us aware of what’s out there and helping us move these sites into the cleanup phase.”

As part of its twice-a-year update of contaminated sites in Washington, the state Department of Ecology has added 20 newly assessed sites to the state’s hazardous-sites list and nine cleaned-up sites have been removed. In addition, two sites have had their rank reassessed.

Over the past 15 years, some 9,500 toxic sites have been identified. Nearly 60 percent of the sites have been cleaned up or require no further action, and 31 percent are actively being cleaned up or monitored. Nearly 1,000 toxic sites are still awaiting action.

“We remain confident in our ability to meet the cleanup goals of the state and put land back into productive use,” said Pendowski. “Strong financial backing from the legislature is helping us clean up more sites and more-challenging sites than ever.”

Cleanup is required whenever toxic contamination is above limits set in the state’s Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA), a 1989 citizen initiative that established a broad-based program for cleaning and preventing toxic contamination.

The properties on Ecology’s ranked list of hazardous sites are graded on a scale of one to five, with a rank of one representing the highest level of concern.

The scores do not necessarily reflect the severity of the contamination, but are based on a site’s location and the potential paths through which humans and sensitive environments could be exposed to the hazardous substances.

Thus, a site with a number one ranking may have less contamination or less-hazardous contaminants than lower-ranked sites, but the risk of exposure is higher and cleanup needs to happen quicker.

Because resources are limited, contaminated sites are ranked according to the risks they pose to people and the environment, which helps prioritize the time and funding spent on them.

MTCA specifies that those responsible for polluting a site must pay for its cleanup. The state pays for cleanup only when a liable person cannot be found or when identified liable parties lack the financial resources to pay for the work.

The hazardous-sites list is updated in February and August each year.