What did Spokane County officials know about pollution at the Colbert landfill - and when did they know it?
Those are the key questions in a high-stakes trial that is to open in U.S. District Court this week.
County taxpayers’ wallets could be hit if the county loses.
“There’s $25 million at stake. It’s all or nothing,” said Dean Fowler, the county’s Superfund manager.
If the county collects on a 1982 insurance policy, Twin City Fire Insurance Co. will pay much of the remaining tab to clean up the contaminated landfill.
If it loses, county residents will pay - through additional taxes or higher garbage bills.
Colbert tentatively was proposed for the national Superfund list of toxic sites in 1981 after harmful industrial chemicals were found in neighbors’ drinking-water wells. It was listed officially in August 1983.
Several insurance companies that sold policies before Colbert became a Superfund site have settled with the county, paying $5.5 million toward the cleanup.
The main industrial polluters at Colbert - including Spokane computer-keyboard firm Key Tronic Corp. and the U.S. Air Force - also contributed $7.5 million to a cleanup trust fund.
But Twin City won’t pay on the county’s $25 million comprehensive general liability policy, and settlement negotiations have foundered.
Both sides agree that ground water under Colbert was fouled by industrial solvents that county officials allowed to be dumped there from 1975 to 1980.
But they disagree on who is financially responsible for the damage.
Spokane County Commissioner Steve Hasson says the county has a good case.
“If our attorneys thought there was risk, they’d be urging us to settle. I can only assume they are confident we’ll win,” Hasson said.
Twin City is going to trial because the county knew about Colbert’s pollution problems when the policy took effect in January 1982, said attorney Dean Lum of Seattle. “We are saying they knew by early ‘82; they are saying they didn’t,” he said.
“The EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) had extensive conversations in 1981 about the Colbert contamination - before the insurance policy was purchased,” Twin City’s attorneys say in court documents.
The attorneys also point to a county consultant’s October 1981 prediction of “Armageddon” at Colbert if chemicals reached ground water.
That was geo-hydrologist George Maddox’s description of potential consequences if the landfill wasn’t capped and if volatile organic chemicals in Colbert’s garbage pits were to percolate into area water supplies.
“Remedial measures were discussed, but no action was taken at the time,” the insurers say.
Spokane County’s attorneys say local officials didn’t intend to pollute the ground water.
At first, officials didn’t think it was possible the contamination found in 1980 in neighbors’ wells north of the landfill came from Colbert, they say.
At that time, they believed ground water under the site moved to the south and west - “the opposite direction from the wells which were found to be contaminated during tests in October 1980.”
In January 1981, James Malm of the state Department of Ecology said the landfill was the most likely source of contamination. But Spokane County officials disagreed.
By April 1982, after extensive testing, consultant Maddox concluded the landfill was the source of the contamination in wells to the north.
The insurer’s legal team says there is plenty of evidence the county should have anticipated problems with the landfill long before 1982.
They point to landfill operator William Schmidt, who protested when Spokane County decided to move the Key Tronic wastes from the Mica landfill to Colbert in 1975.
“Schmidt didn’t believe liquid wastes belonged at Colbert. He was ordered to accept the waste and threatened with a fine if he did not,” the insurers say.
Key Tronic dumped 200 to 400 gallons a month at Colbert from 1975 to 1980, hauling 55-gallon barrels of trichloroethane and methylene chloride to the landfill.
“They opened the bunghole, dumped the liquids into open trenches or pits and allowed the liquid waste to soak directly into the sandy soil,” according to court documents.
The trenches for hazardous waste were located less than 100 yards from a private well bordering the northern end of the landfill.
Twin City also says the policy it sold the county has a pollution exclusion clause that means it doesn’t pay for cleaning up gradually occurring pollution. The county says it doesn’t pertain to Superfund sites.
Spokane County has a $38 million unfunded liability for ground-water pollution at three old landfills that all are Superfund sites: Colbert, Greenacres and Mica.
The county already has spent $11 million at Colbert. An air stripper built last year has cleaned 242 million gallons of polluted ground water.
Daily, 1.5 million gallons of water are pumped to the top of a 70-foot tower. A fan forces air through the water, allowing the chemicals to evaporate. The water is discharged into the Little Spokane River.
“You can drink our effluent; it’s very clean,” said Debra Geiger, the technician who operates the air stripper.
In addition, the 40-acre site has been capped to prevent rainwater from trickling into the polluted garbage and spreading contamination farther.
The city of Spokane may have to sell additional bonds to help the county finish its Superfund cleanups, according to the city’s 1995 bond prospectus for its solid waste system.
The city cannot do that until 1999 because of current obligations to bondholders. Current bonds provide $20 million for the county Superfund cleanups.
But the city may not be willing to issue more bonds because it would have to raise tipping fees to pay them off, said Phil Williams, Spokane’s solid waste project director.
One possible solution would be to form a special-purpose taxing district.
“That might be a better way than to raise tipping fees, but no decisions have been made,” Williams said.