A Hillyard company whose parent firm is being sued for major violations of the federal Clean Water Act has leaked oil above the Spokane aquifer.
The spills under Koch Materials Co. storage tanks are in Hillyard and in the Spokane Valley.
In recent years, neighbors have complained about the stench from Koch’s Hillyard asphalt factory. But the company’s groundwater problems are less well known.
Nobody knows how much oil has leaked at either site.
In 1992, Koch officials discovered “obvious contamination” at 4327 N. Thor under three storage tanks they were replacing, according to their report to the state Department of Ecology.
Initial tests show the oil has seeped 125 feet underground, and may be as close as 25 feet to the aquifer. It’s been measured in concentrations 150 times the state cleanup standards.
A clay layer of unknown thickness apparently is blocking the oil from reaching the aquifer, but state regulators are worried the oil could go deeper.
“There’s a heightened concern about this because it’s over our drinking water supply,” said Dave George, an Ecology Department site inspector.
Koch has installed concrete pads under its new tanks to prevent rain-water water from driving the oil leak deeper underground.
But company officials want to leave the spill alone, an approach they call “passive bioremediation.”
“We believe if we drill any deeper, we’ll penetrate the clay and make it worse,” said Joe Rosenthal, project engineer at Koch Industries’ Wichita, Kan., headquarters.
It’s “premature” to conclude the site needs no more cleanup, George said.
In the Spokane Valley, oil and diesel fuel on property Koch leased from the railroad has oozed into loose gravel near the Burlington Northern rail yard at Trent and Fancher roads.
In 1993, the Ecology Department added the Valley property to the state’s list of 538 hazardous sites. This year, the state rated it a 3 on a scale of 1 to 5 - where 1 is the most dangerous.
The Hillyard site also got a 3 ranking this year.
Meanwhile, Koch’s parent company in Kansas has been accused of widespread violations of the federal Clean Water Act.
In April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Justice Department and the Coast Guard jointly filed a civil suit against Koch Industries and several of its subdivisions, including Koch Materials of Texas. They claim the oil pipeline company unlawfully discharged millions of gallons of oil into the navigable waters of six states in the South and Midwest since 1990.
The suit is pending, a Justice Department spokesman said this week.
There’s no connection between the Spokane spills and the lawsuit, which “will take a long time to resolve,” said Riff Yaeger, Koch Industries’ spokesman.
Koch leased the three-acre Valley site at 5324 E. Trent to store petroleum blends used for asphalt and sealants from 1983 to 1988.
In 1990, when its lease with BN was about to expire, the company hired engineers to study the site. They concluded no cleanup was required, said Robert Hoyle, a Koch vice president, in a letter to the Ecology Department.
The engineering survey found heavy contamination down to five feet. The report said it was “doubtful” the pollution had spread deeper.
“We didn’t accept that conclusion because there was no data to support it. We said additional work would have to be done,” the Ecology Department’s George said.
Koch has no plans for additional work in the Valley, Rosenthal said.
The Hillyard contamination was discovered two years later when the company replaced three old above-ground tanks, each with a 17,000-gallon capacity.
Some of the pollution at both sites may not be Koch’s sole responsibility.
The Valley site’s problems may date as far back as 1910, when the Northern Pacific Railroad built the nearby Parkwater rail yard, according to Ecology Department files. Northern Pacific and Burlington Northern merged in 1972, and the site became a BN terminal.
The railroad had an underground bunker oil tank on the site until the early 1960s, and Husky Oil leased the property in the 1970s.
In Hillyard, the heaviest fuel oil atop the clay over the aquifer may be 30 years old, according to Ecology Department lab estimates.
Husky Oil ran a tank farm at that site until Koch bought it and consolidated its Spokane operations in Hillyard in 1985. The site has been used for asphalt operations since 1910.
Under state law, all the companies who did business at the sites are responsible for cleanup.
State officials, busy with higher-priority spills, are awaiting an update on the company’s private cleanup efforts, said Flora Goldstein, director of the toxic cleanup program in Eastern Washington.
If Koch drags its feet, the state can step in to oversee the work. But that’s costlier for the company.
“The expectation is that companies will independently clean up their sites. It’s to their benefit not to have the state oversee what they are doing,” Goldstein said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Koch’s oil problems