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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County to pay EPA $100,000 for soil tests at vermiculite site

The parcel at 1318 N. Maple St. handled thousands of tons of vermiculite ore from a mine in Libby, Montana, between 1951 and 1973. (Dan Pelle)

Spokane County will pay more than $100,000 to the Environmental Protection Agency for soil testing costs at a former asbestos processing site in the West Central neighborhood.

The agreement between the county and the federal government, submitted in federal court last week, requires all future construction or sales of lots at 1318 N. Maple St. to undergo environmental scrutiny.

The county bought the land in 2000, nearly 30 years after W.R. Grace and Co. closed its Vermiculite Northwest plant there. That plant processed vermiculite ore W.R. Grace brought to the site in rail cars from the company’s mine in Libby, Montana, and turned it into attic insulation called Zonolite.

“They had furnaces that broke the ore down and made it into insulation,” said County Engineer Bob Brueggeman, who worked with EPA officials on the deal. The insulation littered the soil on the site with cancer-causing asbestos.

In 2007, the county elected to cap and seal portions of the site with asphalt to trap asbestos about 4 feet underground. EPA investigators visited the site three times between 2000 and 2011, conducting soil tests that showed significant construction or movement of soil on the site could throw plumes of asbestos into the air and create a health hazard. Federal officials also removed some contaminated soil near an apartment building on the site in April 2011.

Greg Weigel, the EPA’s on-site investigator in the case, said ensuring the asphalt cap remains on the site and in good condition is vital to protecting public health.

“The concern when you have asbestos contamination in the soil, is that it can kick up dust and have asbestos fibers in that dust,” Weigel said. Asbestos has been tied to asbestosis, a scarring of the lung tissue that occurs after long-term exposure to the particulate, and mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer.

The EPA’s tests and removal of some soil cost $101,797, money that will be paid out of the county’s roads fund, Brueggeman said. The county has budgeted about $45 million for that account this year.

“The decree just says, the cap that’s there, we’ll keep it in good condition,” he said.

The EPA received $250 million in a 2008 settlement with W.R. Grace to clean up contamination in Libby, where asbestos exposure created an epidemic of lung disease among residents. The federal agency also got $54 million from W.R. Grace in a bankruptcy case that was paid off last year, but Brueggeman said none of that money was available to cover the Spokane cleanup costs.

The EPA sought the consent decree in federal court to require the county pay the costs of the previous cleanup. It is a settlement of a dispute without either side admitting fault.

The 2-acre plot is zoned for use as right-of-way by the county Division of Engineering and Roads. The asphalt cap is on the southwest corner of the property, along the intersection of Maple and Sinto Avenue. The county roads department houses vehicles and equipment on the site.