A substantial plume of an industrial solvent pollutes part of Coeur d’Alene’s ground water and is moving toward Post Falls and Spokane.
Public and private wells are contaminated, and more may be tainted as the trichloroethylene (TCE) moves west in the Spokane-Rathdrum Aquifer, according to a report recently released by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. At worst, one of Coeur d’Alene’s most productive wells may have to be relocated, at a cost of at least $500,000.
Private industry and government appear to have caused the problem by dumping the carcinogen into the ground - for decades an accepted disposal method. Cleanup is impossible; expensive treatment is about the only alternative, EPA says.
The health threat is uncertain.
“It’s not a ‘drink it and you’re going to die situation,”’ said John Sutherland, of the Idaho Division of Environmental Quality. Rather, long-term exposure poses a risk of cancer, or damage to the liver, kidney and central nervous system.
This contamination illustrates how easily the aquifer can be polluted.
“If you want to drink clean water, with an aquifer this sensitive, it’s going to take some work,” said Brian Painter, also with the DEQ. “Pour it on the surface and you are going to drink it.”
It’s unclear how much of the TCE will reach Post Falls and Spokane or any of the total 400,000 users of the aquifer. A computer model used by the state estimates the pollution will hit the state line in five years. The model can’t predict concentration.
Federal and state pollution-control laws probably would prevent this from reoccurring, now. But it’s too late. TCE is found in the water under Spokane, from other sources, and has turned up in 10 wells in Coeur d’Alene.
In 1992, the Sunrise Terrace development in north Coeur d’Alene had to abandon two wells with five times the legal concentration of TCE. That same year, Painter said, TCE started showing up in a city well, located 1,200 feet to the west of Sunrise Terrace, on Hanley Avenue.
This spring, TCE levels in the Hanley well topped federal limits for the first time. Federal law requires quarterly testing. TCE levels have to exceed five parts per billion for four successive tests to violate federal drinking water standards.
The well has been tested every other week since May and hasn’t shown TCE above the health standard. The Sunrise wells showed similar fluctuations before they became too polluted to use.
The Hanley well is the only city well in the path of the contamination. It is an important well, however.
Coeur d’Alene requires five wells in the summer, but runs on the Hanley well alone in the winter. To date, city officials are “paying attention, but we aren’t overly concerned,” said Jim Markley, city water superintendent.
“The very worst case scenario is I have one well I can’t run.”
EPA first became aware of solvent contamination in the aquifer under Coeur d’Alene in the early 1980s. Three former employees of Deming Industries accused the company of dumping 800 gallons of TCE into a dry well and a septic system every year, after such relaxed hazardous waste disposal was outlawed.
The EPA found high concentrations of TCE in the septic system at the Government Way plant, but couldn’t prove anything illegal.
EPA returned in the early 1990s at the request of state regulators, worried by the appearance of TCE in city and private wells.
Company Vice President Mike Deming says the operation never illegally dumped TCE. But “I’m not going to say there’s no way Deming Industries was involved” in the groundwater contamination, he said.
Since 1955, Deming Industries has been a machine shop, done metal plating and then switched to only coating aluminum. It no longer uses hazardous chemicals and is interested in doing whatever it can to help solve the contamination problem, Deming said.
“We need to pinpoint those that are health risks and deal with those, not get punitive against the people who thought they were doing things right,” he said.
Ground water flow patterns show TCE would move from Deming Industries right to Sunrise Terrace and the city well. EPA spent roughly $500,000 and a couple of years investigating the possibility.
But it can’t find a direct source for the pollution. That’s difficult to establish because the pollution occurred so long ago, and because the aquifer under Coeur d’Alene moves so fast.
Investigators considered 26 possible sources and thoroughly probed the six likeliest. They include two Idaho Department of Transportation shops, neither of which had significant TCE contamination. Still, records show the old shop dumped oil into dry wells, again an accepted practice of the day.
Deming Industries appears the most likely source of solvent contamination, but the other areas “cannot be ruled out,” the just-released EPA report said.
EPA will continue investigating some of the sites. Beyond that, it’s up to Coeur d’Alene to decide how to deal with the problem, said Debbie Flood of the EPA.
The contamination fits all the criteria for a Superfund site. But it’s not on the Superfund list because local officials have resisted the listing, she said.
That means there won’t be federal cleanup money. So, the question of who pays for dealing with the problem also remains unresolved.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Map: Suspected sources of contamination
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT IS TCE? Trichloroethylene, or TCE, is commonly used at automotive shops, dry cleaners, machine shops and others. For years, common practice was to dump it in the ground. What else is known about TCE? It is primarily used to degrease metal, as a spot remover, and as an additive in ink and shoe polish. The man-made chemical is found in ground water nationwide. It breaks down slowly in water and rapidly when exposed to the air. When inhaled long-term, it damages the nervous system. TCE can be released to the air when water with TCE is used for cooking or bathing. It can be removed from water by boiling it for at least five minutes. This, however, causes the chemical to be released to the air. Filters that remove volatile organic compounds will remove TCE, but are difficult to maintain. It also damages the liver and kidney, causes cancer in laboratory animals and is believed to cause cancer in humans. - Ken Olsen