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Officials question racetrack contamination

Spokane County’s purchase of a racetrack near Airway Heights may cost taxpayers much more than expected.

State environmental officials initially have put the level of contamination at the Spokane Motor Sports Park on par with the pollution at the Kaiser Trentwood rolling mill, which has cost tens of millions to clean up.

The state Department of Ecology has completed its analysis of water samples provided prior to the county’s purchase of the former Spokane Raceway Park last May. According to tests of water from wells on the site, state regulators have given the pollution a rating of 2 on a scale to 5, with 1 being the most contaminated.

Mike Hibbler, the section manager for Ecology’s Toxics Cleanup Program, said those tests showed significant concentrations of trichloroethylene, commonly used as a cleaning solvent. The chemical can cause cancer to those who drink it in high enough amounts.

“Typically, the cost to clean up a 5 will be cheaper than the cost of a 1,” Hibbler said, referring the contamination scoring system. “But a 3 could cost more than a 2 to clean up, depending on the specific site conditions.” The ranking is based on risks posed to both people and the environment, he said.

Commissioner Bonnie Mager, who voted against borrowing $4.5 million to buy the 315 acres, said she fears taxpayers may be on the hook for the cleanup.

As part of the court-ordered sale of the property, $1 million was put aside to pay for cleanup of any well contamination on the site.

“Obviously, nobody is happy with the idea it is a 2,” Mager said, referring to Ecology’s rating. “If I would have to make a guess, it’s going to be considerably more than a million dollars to clean it up based on our own in-house assessment.”

The Kaiser Trentwood rolling mill in Spokane Valley also has level 2 contamination. According to newspaper archives, Kaiser had spent $20 million there by 2005 to clean up oil and PCBs – chemical compounds once used in industry. The federal government banned commercial production of the carcinogens in 1979.

Two other locations – a former aluminum recycler next to the Trentwood rolling mill and a building on Trent Avenue where transformers were dismantled – also carry a 2 rating. Each had similar problems with PCBs, Hibbler said.

Ecology has no level 1 contamination sites near Spokane. The closest is the Van Stone Mine near Colville in Stevens County, Hibbler said.

Commissioner Todd Mielke, who voted with Commissioner Mark Richard to buy the land at public auction, said he was “shocked” at the state’s pollution rating. But he largely downplayed its significance. He said many West Plains wells have been shown to contain levels of solvents that have been “attributed to past activities at Fairchild Air Force Base.”

“So I guess the question is … why do we believe the solvent in this one well is attributed strictly to the racing that took place on that site?” Mielke said.

Jim Emacio, the chief deputy civil prosecuting attorney, said state regulators pointed out in a letter that more testing will follow.

“That will require putting in various wells to understand the magnitude of the problem, whether it’s flowing off site, how bad it is or how good it is,” he said. “So, it’s kind of premature. What’s important is they are going to revisit what they’ve done.”

Hibbler agreed that more testing will follow. But he said what happens next is contingent on the county. Officials can either start a voluntary cleanup or let Ecology handle it.

“We have done no sampling of the site at all,” he said. “We were working solely on samples taken prior to the purchase of the property.”

That was one of Mielke’s main objections. “They didn’t do any test wells and yet they supposedly completed their assessment,” he said. “I don’t know that they did any core samples of the soil.”

Hibbler said a close examination of the site would begin once the cleanup is initiated. And several methods have been established for cleaning solvents out of the groundwater. “But it’s hard to figure out the cleanup remedy until you understand the scope of the problem,” he said.