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County wary of seizing toxic sites

Fri., March 30, 2007

People look gift horses in the mouth because horses keep eating when they’re too old to work.

But Spokane County Treasurer Skip Chilberg insists he must accept a couple of broken-down nags with the potential to empty the county granary.

Chilberg told county commissioners this week that he plans to foreclose on two contaminated properties whose owners haven’t paid their taxes or cleaned up their hazardous messes: the private Marshall landfill and an abandoned Plaza Grange Supply gasoline station and store near Rosalia, on Old State Route 195.

The 38.5-acre landfill is polluted with a long list of “volatile organic compounds” – mostly solvents such as benzene, toluene and trichloroethene – and groundwater at the Plaza Grange Supply property is tainted with gasoline, according to the state Department of Ecology.

The landfill is ranked 4 on a 5-point Ecology Department scale in which 1 represents the worst contamination. The Plaza Grange Supply site is ranked 5.

“I feel it’s my legal responsibility, my responsibility to the taxpayers, as well as a moral obligation to clean up the environment,” Chilberg told wary county commissioners Tuesday.

He said he couldn’t follow the example of his predecessor, Linda Wolverton, and refuse to foreclose on the properties because acquiring them wouldn’t be in the county’s financial interests.

Chilberg told commissioners Tuesday that he thought it was likely no one would bid on the landfill or Plaza Grange Supply properties at a sheriff’s auction, and the county would wind up owning them. After visiting the Grange site a day later, he said he thought there was a chance someone would buy it.

“It’s a decent-looking building,” he said.

Chilberg said he intends to foreclose “in the next few months,” after giving county commissioners time to review the issue. He said state law will allow the commissioners to cancel the sheriff’s sale if they determine it’s not in the county’s best interest.

If that happens, he said, “I’ll feel I’ve fulfilled my obligation and I’ll let it go.”

Generally, state law requires county treasurers to foreclose on owners who are more than three years in arrears on their property taxes. The defunct Plaza Grange Supply Co. has been in arrears since 2001 and owes $13,912; the family-owned Marshall landfill has been delinquent since 1997 and owes $26,398.

The state Department of Ecology has named Glen Gillson, Helen Gillson, Janet Davidson, Marshall Properties Inc. and Marshall Landfill Inc. as “potentially liable parties” in what eventually could be a multimillion-dollar cleanup. Efforts to reach family spokesmen were unsuccessful.

Anyone who dumped hazardous materials at the site could be added to the list.

“I think we need to move forward here,” County Commissioner Todd Mielke told Chilberg. But, he added, “I want to make sure I understand the implications before I pull the trigger on this.”

Commissioner Bonnie Mager also urged Chilberg to exercise restraint: “I just think timing might be an issue on this, so I certainly hope you will work closely with us.”

Chilberg’s announcement Tuesday sent other county officials scrambling to protect their budgets.

“It will come out of your (general fund) budget, not the engineering budget,” Roads Department engineering manager Pat Harper told commissioners.

State law requires road money to be spent on roads, he noted.

“I’d be scared to death to pick up these properties, quite frankly,” said county solid waste coordinator Bill Wedlake, who manages three now-closed public landfills.

The county already is responsible for an eventual cleanup of the old Marshall township landfill adjacent to the private landfill. The township landfill was abandoned in the early 1970s when fewer industrial chemicals were being dumped, Wedlake said in an interview.

He and his boss, utilities director Bruce Rawls, told commissioners they have no money for another cleanup.

“We really don’t want to be in any more landfill-closure business,” Rawls said.

Chilberg said commissioners have a responsibility to get the contaminated properties cleaned up, but he thought the county probably wouldn’t have to pay. He cited state and federal laws that say county governments aren’t considered “owners” for environmental cleanup purposes when they acquire polluted real estate through tax foreclosure.

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Ron Arkills warned that the county might be sued under nuisance laws if it allows groundwater contamination to get worse.

And, Chilberg said, an Ecology Department official told him the state might pay most of the cleanup costs.

Still, Mielke fretted, “Once you get into environmental cleanups, the potential for expense is extreme.”

Wedlake agreed: “There may be some state grants available, but I’ve never seen more than 50 percent (of the cost covered by a grant).”

Wedlake predicted the landfill cleanup would cost “at least $10 million, and I’ve never seen the state step up to the plate to that extent. I wouldn’t touch this at all unless I had to.”

Even if the state pays cleanup costs, “there certainly is an administrative burden for the county to take over the properties,” Chilberg acknowledged in an interview Wednesday. But he said commissioners “have the moral obligation” to get involved.

“Unless somebody pushes the envelope a little bit, nobody is going to find out” whether state or federal cleanup money is available, Chilberg said.

Jani Gilbert, spokeswoman for the Department of Ecology’s Spokane regional office, said public ownership of the landfill and the Plaza Grange Supply properties might open the door to funding not available for private owners, “but we can’t say at this point.”

“We’re going to look into that and see how we can help,” Gilbert said.

She said the tax-delinquent properties are among 104 contaminated sites under review by Ecology’s regional office. They also are among 42 that have been moved to a list of “hazardous sites.”

Twenty-one sites on the “hazardous” list are considered more urgent than the private Marshall landfill, and one has the same category 4 ranking as the landfill. The Grange Supply site is one of 13 category 5 sites clumped at the bottom of the list.


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