Underground oil contamination in the path of a new north Spokane freeway is disrupting long-laid plans for the high-speed corridor through Hillyard, and neighborhood leaders aren’t happy about it.
Oil that leaked from a locomotive refueling yard decades ago has seeped through the ground and now floats atop the Spokane aquifer just south of Wellesley Avenue. The contamination plume lies underneath the designated route of the freeway, which when completed will provide a 10.5-mile nonstop link from Interstate 90 to U.S. Highway 395 at Wandermere.
Cleaning up the oil could take anywhere from three to 20 years, and the earliest it could start is late 2017. That schedule collides with a tight timetable for the state Department of Transportation to spend money coming from the Connecting Washington transportation package approved last year.
So the state is considering a redesign of the North Spokane Corridor at Wellesley, which may require construction of an elevated segment – one that neighborhood leaders don’t want towering over the landscape.
They’re concerned that an elevated freeway such as the viaducts in downtown Spokane and Wallace would become a blight on the Hillyard neighborhood.
Washington’s Ecology and Transportation departments and Spokane City Hall are grappling with the problem, along with the two corporations responsible for the cleanup, BNSF Railway and Marathon Oil.
Hillyard neighborhood leaders have a voice as well.
‘You are going to destroy this business district’
The 7-acre site is called the Black Tank Property. BNSF removed the site’s 50-foot-diameter namesake 10 years ago and cleaned up the surface contamination.
But for decades, thick bunker-C oil and diesel fuel leaked into the ground from various parts of the refueling system, state officials said. The contamination is not considered a health hazard, and BNSF officials who are monitoring it said the plume is not moving.
Cleanup studies, now underway, will determine the best method for removing the oil.
Hillyard neighborhood leaders are concerned that a freeway redesign will result in construction of an elevated section on the east side of the historic business district, possibly 30 feet tall, affecting the aesthetics of the area where revitalization work has been underway for years.
A freeway redesign might also change plans for a trail and park between the business district and transportation corridor, they said.
Neighborhood leaders want to combine the trail and linear park with other attractions, including Hillyard’s collections of local rail history, to draw visitors and community events.
Richard Burris, president of the Greater Hillyard Business Association, said a redesigned and taller freeway would undercut neighborhood efforts.
“You are going to destroy this business district,” he said of the possibility of an elevated section around the pollution site.
Hillyard leaders have backing from Spokane Mayor David Condon and three City Council members who are calling on the state Transportation Department to build the remaining 5 miles of freeway starting at Interstate 90 and then work north to buy time for completion of oil cleanup.
Gus Melonas, a spokesman for BNSF in Seattle, said, “We are working with the Department of Ecology like we have been for years.
“We are committed to protecting the environment and taking steps to remediate. We are working through that process now,” he said.
Refueling facility more than a century old
The refueling facility dates back to about 1910 as part of a Great Northern Railroad switching yard, roundhouse and shops. The yard and adjacent community, which was once its own city, were named after Great Northern owner James J. Hill.
Mergers over the years combined Great Northern with the much larger BNSF.
The refueling facility was used by the railroad until the 1960s and then leased to tenants, including an asphalt production operation. By 1988, the site was no longer in use, Melonas said.
During the 1990s, the state Department of Transportation wrote an environmental impact statement to identify a preferred freeway route. About two dozen contaminated sites were identified along the route, including what is now known as the Black Tank Property.
Going through industrial land avoided destruction of neighborhoods, transportation officials said.
At the time, it was believed that the oil contamination was confined to upper layers of soil. In 1999, BNSF notified the state Ecology Department of the deeper problem.
It turned out that oil had leaked from the black tank and its fuel delivery system and seeped down through porous rock and sand to where it now rests. How much oil leaked hasn’t been determined.
The nearest municipal water well is about a mile to the west on Hoffman Avenue. Another well is located to the north, but at a greater distance, said Jeremy Schmidt, DOE site manager for the cleanup. Water in the aquifer flows to the northwest at the site, away from the Hoffman Avenue well, he said.
“It is important to note we don’t have contamination north of Wellesley,” Schmidt said.
BNSF and Marathon Oil, which is based in Canada, are responsible for removing the oil in the ground.
A fact sheet produced earlier this year by Ecology noted: “These petroleum products are very thick, difficult to pump and will be challenging to clean up because of the depth (170 feet) and type of pollution.”
A cleanup feasibility study is due for public review later this year. Schmidt said a series of vertically drilled wells could be sunk down to the plume, then heat or surfactants could be applied to get the oil to migrate into the wells for removal.
BNSF currently has two investigation wells being drilled at the site as part of the environmental assessment work, Melonas said.
Transportation package changed everything
Darrel McCallum, design project engineer for the North Spokane Corridor, said Transportation Department staff thought that any near-surface pollution could be safely capped by building a freeway on top of it.
When that proved to not be possible because of the deeper plume, the agency took the view internally that cleanup would be done in advance of freeway completion. At the time, funding was not available.
But last year’s legislative approval of the Connecting Washington transportation package changed everything, McCallum said.
The package, funded in part through gasoline taxes, provides up to $879 million through June 2029 for real estate purchases, design and construction.
The legislative package has a firm timeline for spending the money, McCallum said.
The letter last month from the mayor and three City Council members urges the department to move its focus to the Interstate 90 connection and work northward to provide more time for cleanup.
The March 28 letter said, “The city of Spokane is opposed to any realignment that would reroute the highway into an “s-curve” around the BNSF/Marathon black tank site.”
McCallum said he and his engineers are looking at various scenarios to meet their legislative timeline and to provide the best solution in the Hillyard area.
But building the freeway from south to north poses problems, including the need for numerous right of way purchases in a short amount of time and potential environmental remediation at some of those locations, particularly between Spokane Community College and I-90, he said.
Also, completing a freeway segment and not opening it until the Black Tank Property is cleaned up might be unwelcome to the public.
‘Hillyard … has a lot riding on this’
Hillyard neighborhood leaders believe an open-pit excavation could be the solution.
They propose digging a large hole to remove the oil, but allowing the freeway to pass above the pit on an overpass bridge about 200 feet long.
That would avoid the need for a taller S-curve over Wellesley and around the western edge of the plume.
“From an engineering standpoint, it’s absolutely feasible,” said Burris, of the Greater Hillyard Business Association.
Neighborhood leaders believe an S-curve would have to be at least 30 feet tall, with the incline extending well to the north adjacent to the business district.
Schmidt, of the Ecology Department, said an open pit might be expensive and might not even be possible considering that shoring walls would have to be built 170 feet tall.
Schmidt acknowledged that environmental cleanups take time.
“Everyone complains about the speed our sites get cleaned up,” he said. “It’s just the process.”
DOT’s McCallum said he is going to work closely with the neighborhood on a solution.
But he said he believes building an S-curve around the plume can be made to work and still provide Hillyard with the aesthetics and trail amenities it is hoping to get from the project.
“Hillyard, rightfully so, has a lot riding on this,” McCallum said.
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