News

Fallout from smelter covered 1,000 miles

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

A recent study conducted by the state Department of Ecology has found that arsenic and lead fallout from the Asarco smelter in Ruston reaches across about 1,000 square miles of King, Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties.

The latest test was part of a series of studies intended to find the “footprint” of the smelter plume fallout. Most of the sites in the latest study were farther away from the former Asarco smelter than those looked at in previous studies, said Larry Altose, spokesman for the state Department of Ecology (DOE).

To find the boundaries of the smelter’s fallout, DOE workers are taking soil samples farther and farther away from the smelter until they find the point where lead and arsenic levels are consistently within normal background levels.

Meanwhile, the state is conducting second-level studies to find contaminated areas that have been developed into places used by children, like playgrounds, schools or daycares. Altose said in many cases, ground coverings have been placed at the site of childcare centers, protecting kids from direct contact with the contaminated soil.

He said DOE should finish its studies this year and will focus more specifically on the child-use areas next year.

There are a few sites in the Federal Way area identified in the studies as having higher levels of arsenic and lead than the state standard, but Altose said they’re not high enough to create an immediate threat to public health.

“Some are moderately over the cleanup level, but not at the level requiring immediate response,” he said.

Samples taken at Dash Point showed arsenic levels at 79, 21 and 50 parts per million. The state standard is 20 parts per million.

Near the Lakota area of Federal Way, arsenic levels were measured at 39 parts per million at one site, and another unidentified site in the interior of the city measured 54 parts per million.

Arsenic levels in Des Moines were measured at 46, 150, 160, 50 and 120 parts per million. Lead levels there were 98, 340, 790, 85 and 580 parts per million, DOE reported. The state standard for lead is 250 parts per million.

Lead levels at Dash Point were lower than the state standard at 170, 39 and 140 parts per million and much lower in the Lakota area at 62 parts per million. But they were higher in the interior of Federal Way, at 190 parts per million.

Hilary Karasz-Dominguez, a spokeswoman for the Seattle-King County Public Health Department, said there are lots of reasons why samples taken at the same site would have varying levels of contamination. Wind and topographical features affect how the metals are deposited, she said, and levels would vary widely if the soil was ever disturbed.

Once the studies are complete, state and local agencies will know how far the smelter plume reached and where there might be high levels of lead and arsenic in the soil. The state could provide grants to help clean up public property, like schools and parks, but the government can’t clean up private property.

Altose said the state will be able to provide information and precautionary advice to landowners or developers of possibly contaminated land.

In addition, state and county health officials will work with schools and daycares to ensure children aren’t exposed to the contamination. A few schools, including Twin Lakes Elementary and Star Lake Elementary schools in the Federal Way Public Schools system, had elevated levels of arsenic and lead. Also, a park in Des Moines had the highest arsenic concentration at 189 parts per million.

State Rep. Dave Upthegrove, a Democrat from Des Moines, last year sponsored a bill to provide state grants to private property owners to have their soil tested for arsenic and lead fallout from the Asarco smelter. The proposal didn’t become law, but Upthegrove plans to submit new legislation next month when the 2005 session of the Legislature convenes, focusing on protecting children.

He said his proposal will call for new regulations to be placed on child-use areas within the plume boundaries. Daycares or schools would have to be tested and, if elevated levels of arsenic or lead are found, the facility would have to take steps to protect public health, he said.

While he proposes keeping children from swallowing dirt contaminated with lead and arsenic, Upthegrove acknowledged the difficulty of getting such an effort going.

“Money is such a challenge. Providing new pots of money is almost politically impossible,” he said. “I don’t want to do a message bill. I want to do something to actually accomplish something to protect kids’ health.”

The smelter has been closed for several years and is now the site of a federal Superfund cleanup.

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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