Although they were once hailed as wonder compounds and used in everything from newspaper ink to hydraulic fluid and house paints, PCBs have since become known as chemical Frankensteins.
This week, the state of Washington started a massive cleanup project in the Spokane River aimed at neutralizing the threat posed by high levels of PCBs deposited along the bottom and banks of the river.
The project gained special urgency after health officials realized hundreds, possibly thousands of the city’s poorest Slavic residents have been relying on PCB-laden fish as a major source of sustenance.
By early December, two of the highest concentrations of PCBs in the Spokane River will either be removed or capped by a foot-deep blanket of gravel and chemical-absorbing coal.
“What we have here is Mother Nature’s concentration place,” said the Department of Ecology’s Zach Hedgpeth, as he looked out over a placid stretch of the Spokane River near Felts Field. The half-mile-long stretch of slow water behind Upriver Dam is where some of the highest levels of PCBs have been found, Hedgpeth said. Another site is a few miles upstream, in a backwater stretch near Donkey Island.
The slow water allowed polluted sediments to sink to the muck at the bottom of the river, where they could be consumed by insects or crawfish. When trout, whitefish or other fish eat these small creatures, they also eat the PCBs. That’s how the chemical can eventually end up on dinner tables, served with a slice of lemon and a side of slaw.
“It’s probably among the worst chemicals man’s ever created,” Hedgpeth said.
Birth defects, immune system failure, liver problems and cancers have all been linked with PCBs. The compound has been banned by the federal government since 1977, but PCBs don’t readily break down and they continue to drip and ooze their way into water sources, said Hedgpeth. Over the past decade, their levels have begun to decline in other parts of the river, but unsafe amounts continue to show up in samples taken in the Mission Park area near the Spokane River.
Mountain whitefish and rainbow trout caught in this stretch of the river had upward of six times the levels of PCBs found in fish caught downstream in Long Lake, according to a 2005 study conducted by the Department of Ecology. Suckers caught here were shown to have 30 times more PCBs than fellow members of their species in faster-moving stretches of the river.
Because of the dangerously high levels of pollution, the state issued a warning in 2003 against eating any fish caught between Upriver Dam and the Idaho state line. Health officials said their anxiety over the issue was raised further by the fact that many from the city’s growing Slavic community rely on line-caught wild fish as a main source of protein.
“We had a real concern,” said Mike LaScuola, environmental health specialist for the Spokane Regional Health District. “Some people need this fish as a source of subsistence.”
But environmental cleanups take time. There are lots of studies and even more negotiation over who has to foot the bill. LaScuola said immediate action was needed. He worked with Tatyana Bistrevsky, a Russian-speaking program coordinator for the Washington State University Extension Office, to conduct fish-cleaning demonstrations of how to cut away at least half the risk of PCBs by slicing off belly fat, fins and dark portions of fillets.
LaScuola said it would be better if the fish were avoided, but some Russians and Ukrainians told him they would starve if not for fish from the river.
Tuesday morning, LaScuola was all smiles as he watched heavy equipment get loaded on barges in preparation for the cleanup. “All this has finally come to a point of action,” he said.
PCB-laden sediment along the north bank of the Spokane River above Upriver Dam will be capped by a foot-thick blanket of coal, sand and gravel. Because the sediment is upward of 30 feet below the surface here, removal would have risked stirring it up and contaminating stretches downstream. Creating an underwater cap has been used before with good results on heavily contaminated rivers back East, Hedgpeth said.
To cover the sediment, Compass Environmental of Chicago will use heavy equipment capable of dropping sand, gravel and coal nearly directly atop the bottom of the river. The equipment will be operated by a laptop computer to ensure accuracy. One Department of Ecology official described the process as “painting” the cap onto the sediment. The coal will help absorb the chemical. The sand and gravel are meant to keep it all in place.
The cleanup also will include removal of about 20 dump truck loads worth of contaminated sediment from a shallow backwater near Donkey Island, which is about two miles upstream from the Upriver Dam cleanup stretch.
The project is expected to cost between $1.5 million and $2 million. Much of the cost will be paid by Kaiser Aluminum and Avista Utilities. Kaiser once used hydraulic fluid that contained PCBs. Avista’s responsibility comes from previous ownership of the Spokane Industrial Park, where PCBs were commonly used. The companies are responsible for the cleanup under the state’s Model Toxics Control Act. PCBs have also been traced to other sources, including Inland Empire Paper Co. and wastewater treatment plants upstream, though agreements have not been reached on potential liability, Hedgpeth said. Inland Empire Paper is a subsidiary of Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.
Once the cleanup is completed, the Department of Ecology hopes to turn its attention to two other ailments of the river: heavy metals and fire retardants. In the next few years, the state hopes to begin cleaning up heavy metals from eight sites along the river, including near Harvard Road and Stateline. The toxic sediments are the legacy of decades of mining conducted upstream in Idaho’s Silver Valley.
This winter, the Department of Ecology hopes to pinpoint the source of polybrominated diphenyl ethers, PBDEs, which come from fire retardant chemicals. An area near Nine Mile Falls has some of the highest levels found in the state of these harmful chemicals. Officials aren’t quite sure, though, where they are coming from.
“We need to investigate those with the same rigor we’ve investigated PCBs,” LaScuola said.