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Tacoma smelter poisons soil at three Federal Way parks

Children play at Lake Grove Park on Wednesday afternoon. The park, located at 833 SW 308th St., tested positive for unsafe levels of lead and arsenic in the soil. - Andy Hobbs/Federal Way Mirror
Children play at Lake Grove Park on Wednesday afternoon. The park, located at 833 SW 308th St., tested positive for unsafe levels of lead and arsenic in the soil.
— image credit: Andy Hobbs/Federal Way Mirror

Adelaide, Heritage Woods and Lake Grove parks in Federal Way all tested positive for unsafe levels of lead and arsenic in the soil.

Lake Grove Park will have to undergo the most extensive work, said Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE) soil safety program coordinator Amy Hargrove.

The DOE wants to remove the contaminated soil, then replace it with new topsoil, grass and native plants. The other two parks will most likely receive signage that warns park users of the contaminated soil.

The three parks’ positive tests are a result of contamination from the now defunct ASARCO Smelter, located in North Tacoma. The large smelter stack sent emissions of lead and arsenic through the air.

“It was carried through the wind, and settled on the surface soils over about 1,000 square miles,” Hargrove explained to the Federal Way City Council during its June 19 meeting.

Hargrove said the levels that trigger a cleanup response from DOE are 20 parts per million for arsenic, and 250 parts per million for lead. She also noted that the environment has naturally occurring levels of both elements. Here in Washington, the naturally occurring levels are seven parts per million for arsenic and 24 parts per million for lead.

“Why does this matter?” Hargrove asked. “Arsenic and lead are known to be harmful to people. Arsenic can cause heart disease, diabetes, cancers. Lead can cause developmental delays, behavioral problems. Having these in the soils can pose a risk to people. The risk we’re talking about is not an immediate health threat, but it is a long-term exposure and health concern.”

Hargrove said the most common way for people to be exposed to contaminated soil is through “hand-mouth behaviors.” For example, if a child goes and plays in the dirt and then either eats the dirt, as children sometimes do — or when an adult works in the soil, doesn’t wash his or her hands, and then eats food or smokes a cigarette.

In both instances, the contaminated soil is ingested in small amounts, but an extended period of time with such ingestion can eventually have harmful effects to health.

The DOE had asked to come into Federal Way in recent years to do soil tests, and the city complied. Hargrove mentioned that the aforementioned parks were the only ones that had areas that tested for higher than usual concentrations of either substance.

“At Adelaide Park, overall, the averages we found were not over our cleanup level. We had one small sample, outside in the woods, near the play area, but actually in the woods, that did have arsenic levels above the cleanup level,” Hargrove said.

The department proposes putting up signs in this park at 30619 16th Ave. SW. The signs would notify park users that some areas of the soil are contaminated, and will advise park-goers to wash their hands, wipe their feet, etc., after being in the park.

For Heritage Woods, 28159 S. 24th Pl., DOE found essentially the same results, with one small area over the cleanup level. Again, signage would be the solution at Heritage Woods.

For Lake Grove park, 833 SW 308th St., two areas tested beyond the cleanup level, thus requiring greater action from the DOE.

“At this park, Ecology would like to actually come in and excavate the contaminated soil in the front of the park, replace it with clean soil, and top it with grass and some native woods,” Hargrove said. “We also would like to put up signage in the park.”

Hargrove noted that the Safety Soil Program, which has been ongoing since 2005, only addresses play areas in public spaces and does not deal with private residences. She said that residents can ask for what essentially amounts to a home testing kit if they’re interested and concerned with the possible contamination of the soil on their property.

Thanks to a $94 million settlement between the state and ASARCO in 2009, this program’s costs are covered by the state, Hargrove added.

The DOE will begin notifying neighbors of the contaminated soils, and the possible work to be done in the parks, over the summer through a series of mailings and public meetings.

Hargrove said the DOE hoped to bid out the project for Lake Grove and the other two parks during the summer, and it’s expected that the work would be finished in all three parks by the fall.

Federal Way City Councilman Bob Celski was curious as to whether any of the region’s contaminated soils had ever directly resulted in someone’s poor health or death.

“Has there ever been any confirmed cases of arsenic or lead poisoning (of people) that have been in the area a long time?” he asked.

“That’s a great question, and we get it all the time. Unfortunately, with the amount of arsenic and lead that we have in the soils, it’s such a longtime exposure. It’s not there in high enough levels to say ‘Yes, this arsenic or lead caused poisoning,’ but it’s enough over a lifetime…to increase somebody’s risk,” Hargrove answered.

The council unanimously approved to have the DOE do the required work in all three parks.

Clarification: The DOE has indicated that there are no "home test kits", per se, but rather that "Ecology will be offering a program that will be free to residential properties within our program service area, where a sampler will come out and take soil samples at their residence."

DOE indicates that program will likely begin later this summer, or early in the fall. The Department is currently compiling a list of interested residents.

Anyone interested in learning more is directed to contact Diana Smith with DOE. Smith can be reached at 360-407-6255 or at diana.smith@ecy.wa.gov.

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