Officials digging for contamination clues



The next round of searches has begun for soil in south King County contaminated by a now-defunct smelter.

Parks and playgrounds at elementary schools and daycare centers in Federal Way are among the locations where state Department of Ecology workers will take dirt samples the next six months and test them for arsenic and lead.

The toxic substances may be there as a result of airborne particles that drifted from the former Asarco smelter in Ruston during the 90 years it operated near the Tacoma waterfront, about 10 miles due west from Federal Way and other south King County areas.

In earlier testing, DOE reported finding the highest concentrations in soil in the Normandy Park and Des Moines areas, which are in the direction of prevailing winds that carried smoke from the smelter. Federal Way’s concentrations were lower.

“All of this is part of the preliminary work needed to understand the

problem,” said Larry Altose, a DOE spokesman. “The information will help local health agencies provide information needed by the public to avoid or reduce exposure to contaminated soil.”

Officials haven’t declared an immediate health risk, but they’re concerned enough to warn people not to let potentially contaminated dirt come in contact with their mouths or eyes or to breathe in its dust.

Young children who crawl or play on floors and dirt are most vulnerable because they could put their hands or toys in their mouths, according to Dr. Alonzo Plough, director of Seattle-King County Public Health.

The earlier tests were of undeveloped places such as greenbelts while the smelter operated from the 1890s to 1986 before closing and undergoing a federal Superfund cleanup. Because there was comparatively little activity at those sites, they were expected to yield the highest levels of any contamination, said Altose.

The next step is to test developed areas. The news media watched as DOE officials took soil samples Wednesday at Saltwater State Park, one of 53 locations in or near Federal Way that will be tested.

Other parks and recreation areas scheduled for testing include Dash Point State Park, Adelaide, Dash Point Highland, Dumas Bay, Lake Grove, Lakota, Palisades and Poverty Bay parks in Federal Way, Des Moines Creek, City and Memorial parks, Des Moines Creek Trail and Redondo Pier and Boardwalk.

Elementary schools whose playgrounds will be tested include Federal Way Public Schools’ Adelaide, Green Gables, Lake Grove, Mark Twain, Nautilus, Star Lake, Sunnycrest, Twin Lakes, Valhalla, Wildwood and Woodmont, and Des Moines in the Highline School District.

Also on the check list are playgrounds at 11 daycare centers in Federal Way and 15 in Des Moines. Owners who agree to the testing will do so not because their facilities are considered potentially worse than others, but mainly to provide possible examples of contamination throughout the area, Altose said.

DOE plans to publicize test results once or twice over the next six months. If a seriously contaminated site is discovered, steps will be taken to protect the public’s health, but nothing as extreme as closing a site or posting warnings is expected, Altose said.

For instance, he said, if a playground was considered potentially harmful, officials could recommend “more wood chips” as a covering.

Developed areas, such as parks and playgrounds, should have low levels of smelter-produced contaminants because the soil has been turned or removed since the smelter closed, according to DOE.

Studies are being done in some parts of Pierce County, too.

DOE has budgeted $425,000 for the study, including the cost of field researchers and lab tests.

Editor Pat Jenkins can be reached at 925-5565 and

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