The jaws of a backhoe gobbled up a building next to Washington Water Power Co.’s steam plant Wednesday, signaling the start of the utility’s underground oil spill cleanup.
The $13 million cleanup is “a real milestone for downtown Spokane,” said WWP Vice President Rob Fukai before the building came down in a shower of white bricks.
But WWP’s ceremony was overshadowed by a last-minute glitch with state regulators.
A downtown property owner filed objections to the scope of the cleanup plan late Tuesday with the Washington Department of Ecology - in the final hour before the public comment period ended.
The concerns of Metropolitan Mortgage & Securities Co. delayed the formal notice to proceed that WWP had expected from Ecology.
Without final approval, WWP is proceeding “at its own risk,” said Ecology’s Sherman Spencer.
A green light from the state should come soon, perhaps by the end of the week. “We don’t want to delay anything,” Spencer said.
But the agency is obligated to review the new issues raised by Metropolitan, he said.
WWP doesn’t expect to encounter problems that could further postpone cleanup of the 75,000-gallon spill - and downtown development, said WWP spokesman Bob Mansfield.
The last-minute delay arose because Metropolitan officials worry the underground oil could spread to its own properties. The company owns a full city block to the west of the cleanup area, bounded by Lincoln, First, Sprague and Monroe.
It’s also about to buy the first three lots east of Post and south of First, said Metropolitan Vice President Bill Arsenault in his June 10 letter to Ecology.
State law requires cleanup of ground water contamination wherever a plume of pollution has spread, not just to predetermined boundaries, Arsenault said.
WWP agrees with Metropolitan and Ecology that state law requires the utility to clean up the spill wherever it has spread, Mansfield said.
“The ‘site’ is defined as where the contaminants are,” he said.
WWP and Metropolitan officials worked out a compromise late Tuesday.
The utility has agreed to reactivate its monitoring wells and continue taking samples in the vicinity of Metropolitan’s properties, Mansfield said.
As part of the accord, Metropolitan withdrew its request to Ecology for an additional public hearing to discuss cleanup standards and site boundaries. That would have delayed the cleanup by several weeks.
Wednesday morning, WWP began its hands-on work by knocking down the small white maintenance building immediately west of the big brick Central Steam Plant.
Two of four large underground oil tanks that leaked the heavy oil lie under the building that was demolished.
In the project’s first phase, WWP plans to:
Install an underground barrier under First Avenue at the leading edge of the oil plume to block its spread. Ground water behind the wall will be pumped out, cleaned and discharged under a city permit. The barrier work starts in August.
Install a “bioventing” column to pump air into the ground. That will help activate natural microbes in the soil to hasten the oil’s decomposition. The work starts this summer.
Construct a pump-and-treat system to recover as much oil as possible. That work also starts this summer.
The company plans to monitor the spill for up to 15 years, Fukai said. That’s when the site is expected to be clean enough to meet state environmental standards for ground water.
The spill does not threaten Spokane’s aquifer, the area’s sole source of drinking water, officials say.
The cleanup project clears the way for extensive work on Steam Plant Square, a cooperative venture between WP Finance, a WWP subsidiary, and developers Ron and Julie Wells of Wells and Co.
The project is a cornerstone of the Davenport Arts and Entertainment District, a neighborhood of shops, galleries and restaurants envisioned around the hotel.
Work inside the steam plant started last year, said Ron Wells, who watched the demolition with reporters and WWP officials.
The Wellses plan to renovate 60,000 square feet, including the Seehorn Building on Lincoln west of the steam plant. Plans for the complex include a brewpub and bakery, offices and about a dozen other small businesses. It’s expected to open next spring.
WWP’s Central Steam Plant, built in 1915, was once used to heat and light many of Spokane’s downtown buildings. Leaks from the oil tanks were first discovered 15 years ago, but the size of the underground plume was vastly underestimated. WWP officials assumed the oil wouldn’t travel far because it was so thick.
In 1994, drilling showed the oil had moved at least 400 feet north, to First Avenue across from the Davenport Hotel. It has seeped about four stories underground.
Late last year, WWP and Ecology agreed to a court-supervised cleanup plan.
WWP ratepayers will pay nothing for the cleanup, WWP President Paul Redmond said when cleanup details were announced last year.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color) Map of oil spill site