Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corp.’s Trentwood plant violated its state discharge permit in 2002 by discharging nearly 11 pounds of dangerous PCBs to the Spokane River – already the most PCB-polluted river in the state.
The groundwater under Kaiser Trentwood is part of the Spokane/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer – Spokane’s sole source of drinking water – which also mixes with the Spokane River in the summer.
PCBs are banned industrial chemicals that accumulate in the tissues of fish. They are a suspected human carcinogen and can also cause chloracne, jaundice and liver damage in high doses.
The recent PCB discharges, which had not been made public before, are summarized in a March 17, 2004, inspection report obtained from the Washington Department of Ecology under the state Open Public Records Act. Kaiser’s state discharge permit allows no PCBs to be released to the river.
The state didn’t receive a report about the five days of violations in 2002 from Kaiser for several months after they occurred, said Ecology spokeswoman Jani Gilbert. Ecology is investigating the cause of the releases and is considering enforcement action of up to $10,000 per violation. If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gets involved, the fines could be more than double that, she added.
Patrick Blau, Kaiser Trentwood’s environmental manager who met with Ecology inspectors in March, said he hadn’t seen their inspection report and couldn’t discuss it. “Corporate policy is to direct the media to the PR folks in Houston,” Blau said.
“We had a (PCB) spike in December 2002 – we reported that. Subsequent to that, we have been in compliance with our permits,” said Kaiser spokesman Scott Lamb. He declined further comment about the PCB discharges on the advice of Kaiser’s attorneys.
Kaiser no longer stores or uses PCBs at Trentwood. It has cleaned up PCB contamination in its casting and remelt areas and has relined its sewage treatment lagoon. But the ongoing PCB contamination remains a touchy issue for the company.
On April 3, a corporate memo from Kaiser’s Houston headquarters was posted at the Trentwood rolling mill, warning plant workers to talk to a company lawyer before answering any outside investigators’ questions about environmental contamination.
Edward Houff, Kaiser’s general counsel in Houston, said in the memo that the company had learned that “one or more” agencies were investigating its environmental operations.
The financial stakes are high for Kaiser, now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Kaiser reached a settlement in U.S. Bankruptcy Court last year that keeps it on the hook for up to $74 million in groundwater cleanup costs at Trentwood and the shuttered Mead smelter.
A February 2004 Kaiser report shows some of the site’s groundwater samples are contaminated by PCBs at twice the state cleanup standard.
Ecology’s March 2004 inspection report sheds new light on ongoing PCB problems in the effluent collection system at the aluminum factory.
During their inspection, Ecology investigators zeroed in on “extremely high effluent PCB values” documented from the fall of 2002 to the spring of 2003. The report says Kaiser’s Blau had proprietary company data and charts the state hadn’t seen. The charts showed large jumps in PCB concentrations in “004 south,” an outfall pipe to a wastewater treatment lagoon that contains cooling water from rolled aluminum products and storm water, the report says.
In the report, Ecology inspector Ken Merrill said he requested a copy of the PCB data for the outfall pipes. Blau replied that he wasn’t authorized to give the information to the state inspectors. Blau also said he’d documented high PCB levels near manhole No. 20 on the site.
When the inspectors asked whether Kaiser had taken additional steps to control PCBs from the outfall, Blau said “there had been no further clean-up attempt of 004 per corporate directions,” according to the inspection report.
Federal limits for toxic discharges from the end of an industrial pipe call for no more than 170 picograms per liter of PCBs – a minuscule amount – to be discharged to a river in an industrial “mixing zone” which further dilutes the chemicals. A picogram is a trillionth of a gram.
Kaiser’s worst 2002 permit violations came from outfall 001, a pipe in the Spokane River. On five occasions in 2002, PCBs ranged from 2.3 million picograms per liter to more than 48 million. The Dec. 16 discharge alone put 6.8 pounds of PCBs into the river.
The high PCB discharges would have been more worrisome in the summer, but they came in the winter when people weren’t swimming or fishing in the river near Kaiser, Gilbert said.
A 2001 health advisory warned people to avoid or strictly limit consumption of fish caught behind Upriver Dam because of high levels of PCBs.
Ecology monitored some Kaiser effluents to the river from 1994 to 2001. They show loads to the river between 0 and 2.3 grams of PCBs per day. Ecology is conducting a cleanup plan, called a Total Maximum Daily Load, for PCBs in the Spokane River.
Historic sources of PCBs include Kaiser, the Spokane Industrial Park, Inland Empire Paper Co. and the Liberty Lake and Spokane wastewater treatment plants.
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