Radiation Discovered At L-Bar Plant Officials Say Contamination Is Less A Threat Than High Levels Of Ammonia At Abandoned Site
Radioactive contamination has been found at the abandoned L-Bar Products magnesium recycling plant near Chewelah.
Public officials are still analyzing the month-old discovery, but believe the naturally occurring radiation is less of a threat than the high concentrations of ammonia and salts in surface and ground water at the site.
Potassium 40, a radioactive isotope of potassium, was found during preliminary tests of stormwater runoff at the plant. The tests were part of a cleanup that was formally launched Thursday when Northwest Alloys and the bankrupt L-Bar signed an agreement with the state Ecology Department.
“This is very, very recent information,” toxic cleanup supervisor Mark Fuchs said Friday. “We’re committed to finding out what this issue means and dealing with it.”
Fuchs said the test data has been turned over to the state Health Department for analysis.
He said he was unable to describe the level of radioactivity. However, Fuchs said Health Department officials tentatively believe the radiation is less threatening than the ammonia at the site.
Northwest Alloys spokesman Ozzie Wilkinson said a private consultant reported there is “absolutely no health threat” from the radiation. He said it comes from potassium salts in magnesium “sludge bar” waste that was processed at the plant.
Most of the waste was generated at Northwest Alloys’ magnesium smelter in Addy, Wash., and that company is taking the lead in the cleanup.
Wilkinson said all potassium contains about 0.1 percent of the potassium 40 isotope. There is a lot of potassium in the runoff water, which is saltier than seawater in some cases, but Wilkinson said a bag of fertilizer probably would have more radiation.
Fuchs said it is reasonable to suspect potassium in the sludge bar as the radiation source, but officials have not yet analyzed it for radiation. However, he said the sludge bar is responsible for ammonia and chloride (salt) levels that greatly exceed federal standards for surface water.
State surface-water standards for ammonia vary with temperature and acidity and range from 0.5 to 29 parts of ammonia per million parts of water. But ammonia samples in a drainage ditch that leads to the Colville River ranged from 100 to 600 parts per million, according to Ecology Department hydrogeologist John Roland.
While the state surface-water standard for chloride is 860 parts per million, samples found concentrations ranging from 5,300 to 25,000 parts per million.
Electricity conductivity readings also are “extremely high,” which is another indication of dissolved solids such as chloride in the runoff water, Roland said.
Officials say a large release of the salt- and ammonia-laden runoff into the nearby Colville River would kill fish and other aquatic life. So far, they say, that hasn’t happened and emergency measures have been taken to control the amount of runoff that enters the river.
Construction is to begin this spring on a plant to treat the water before it is released into the river.
Fuchs said officials believe the wells in the area are not affected by the shallow aquifer contaminated by the L-Bar operation.
“We have no reason at all to believe that there is any contamination getting into drinking water,” Fuchs said.
Wilkinson said the cleanup cost won’t be known until a study is completed and a plan is approved by the Ecology Department. He said a consultant will be hired and the study will begin this month.
Already, the companies owe the Ecology Department $80,577 for work it has performed at the site, including emergency measures last summer to prevent worse contamination. Northwest Alloys assisted by repairing collapsed buildings used to store hazardous materials.
In exchange for the cleanup agreement, the department dropped a lawsuit it filed in August 1988 to force a cleanup. The lawsuit had been in limbo since L-Bar filed for bankruptcy reorganization in July 1992. The bankruptcy case remains unresolved.
L-Bar’s parent company, Reserve Industries of Albuquerque, N.M., also was named in the lawsuit. Ecology officials still consider Reserve Industries partially liable for the cleanup.
“But, as long as we have somebody who steps forward and does the work, we are happy,” environmental engineer Teracita Bala said.
She said the department is still considering whether to seek payments from four other companies that are believed to have sent magnesium waste to L-Bar. Those companies are: Norsk Hydro Canada Inc. of Montreal; Magcorp of America, Salt Lake City; Amax Metals Inc. of Norwalk, Conn.; and Spectrulite Consortium Inc. of Madison, Ill.
Those four companies combined contributed less than 1 percent of the magnesium “sludge bar” and sludge bar residue at the site, Bala said.
Another unresolved issue is the discovery in May 1992 that 80 partially filled barrels of used sulfuric acid were illegally buried at the site. Employees told investigators from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that L-Bar managers ordered the improper disposal.
Company officials blamed disgruntled employees, and no indictments have resulted yet from the ongoing criminal investigation.