News

Smelter-related cleanup clears Legislature

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

A bill requiring some King and Pierce county daycares and schools to allow the state to inspect them for arsenic and lead contamination has passed the Legislature and is expected to be signed by Governor Christine Gregoire.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Dave Upthegrove of Des Moines, requires schools and licensed daycare operators within the old Asarco copper smelter plume area to allow access to their properties for soil testing.

If elevated levels of lead or arsenic are found, the school or daycare would have to cover the soil with sod or cedar chips or fence it off to keep children from ingesting the chemicals.

The bill was intended to be non-punitive, Upthegrove said, so schools and daycares that fail or refuse to implement safety measures won't be fined or closed. Instead, a letter will be sent home to parents informing them of the elevated levels of the contaminants on-site.

The legislation includes $1 million in state funding over the next two years to help defray the costs of cleanup and safety implementation. There's another $250,000 over two years in the operating budget for the state Department of Ecology (DOE) to administer the program.

"There's no substantial financial burden on schools and daycares," said Upthegrove (D-33rd District).

He said he was happy to see the bill pass on its second trip through the Legislature, even though it's been pared down significantly since he introduced it.

"I would have liked to see it applied statewide. Right now, it's just the Asarco smelter plume area," he said. "But that was a political necessity."

He said earlier that legislators from eastern Washington were reluctant to pass the bill as written because it could have had broad repercussions for the owners of agricultural land contaminated by fertilizers containing elevated levels of arsenic and lead.

Since 2001, DOE has been researching the effects of the Asarco smelter in King, Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties. Last year, the agency released a map identifying the approximately 1,000 square miles affected by lead and arsenic fallout from the plant, which operated on the Puget Sound waterfront near Tacoma for 96 years before it closed in 1986.

A few sites in the Federal Way area were identified in studies as having higher levels of arsenic and lead than the state-allowed standard, but they're not high enough to create an immediate threat to public health, according to DOE.

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. The state standard for arsenic is 20 parts per million.

The state and King County have provide precautionary information and advice to the public about possible contamination. Officials have also been working with schools and daycares to ensure children aren't exposed to contaminated soil.

Soil on southern Vashon-Maury Island has some of the highest concentrations of arsenic attributed to old emissions from the smelter, according to DOE, which will conduct a two-year test on the island to learn if a transplanted fern species will absorb arsenic from soil. The Chinese brake fern (Pteris vittatae) grows in southern latitudes, and officials aren't sure how it will fare in the cooler climate here.

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

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