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EPA says it will start asbestos, PCB cleanup of former Kaiser smelter in Mead this week

UPDATED: Wed., July 29, 2020

Federal environmental regulators began work this week to clean up asbestos and potential cancer-causing chemicals at the abandoned aluminum smelting site previously operated by Kaiser north of Spokane.

The work is expected to last the rest of 2020 and is necessary because people continue to enter the sprawling, 500-acre-plus compound north of Hawthorne Road, said Bill Dunbar, a public affairs specialist with the Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle.

“People who get on the site are exposed to pretty hazardous stuff,” Dunbar said.

That includes the previously popular insulation material asbestos, which has been linked to certain types of lung cancer. EPA regulators visited the site in May 2019 and discovered large quantities of the material in siding used in the buildings, which date to World War II. The smelter was originally constructed by the federal government in 1942 to supply metal for the war effort, and was purchased in 1946 by Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Co., which operated the plant until 2000. In 2004, a St. Louis-based company bought the property and stripped the site of copper and other metals for sale on the scrap market.

The facility was later sold to a real estate investment firm interested in redeveloping the land, but the property was sold again to a Canada-based firm in 2014 for $1 million, according to property records. Kaiser still owns an undeveloped parcel to the north of the plant site, where two retention ponds are collecting runoff that is contaminated by asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and leeching into nearby Deadman Creek, according to EPA analysis.

The contamination is separate from a cyanide and fluoride plume in the groundwater that was discovered in 1978. Kaiser and the Department of Ecology have agreed to a plan that will involve pumping that contaminated water and treating it on the surface.

PCB levels in the ponds tested by state officials in 2018 showed concentration levels nearly 34,000 times the health standard for PCBs originally adopted by the EPA for the Spokane River. Deadman Creek is a tributary of the Little Spokane River, which in turn feeds into the Spokane River. The EPA has since announced it will switch to a less-stringent standard for PCB discharge into the Spokane River, but the contamination in the retention ponds at the Kaiser site remain thousands of times beyond what is permitted.

The federal agency says Spokane Recycling Co., the firm that owns the plant site, and Kaiser may be responsible for cleanup of the site, expected to cost more than $2 million.

In a statement, Kaiser said it is working with environmental regulators to develop cleanup plans for the ponds, but noted that the facility has not been owned or operated by the aluminum company for the past 16 years.

“While it has been and continues to be the responsibility of the various owners of the smelter property since 2004 to operate, and more importantly maintain the ponds, we have agreed to proactively remove the built up contaminated sediment to address concerns expressed by the Environmental Protection Agency and Washington Department of Ecology and mitigate the risk of a potential discharge as the EPA works with the Department of Ecology and the owner of the smelter to address longer term issues,” the company said in a statement.

Dunbar said the EPA is pushing forward with its work first on the buildings owned by Spokane Recycling, and will move to cleanup efforts at the ponds later this year.

About 1,700 cubic yards of soil in the settling pond are believed to be contaminated, as well as about 432,000 gallons of water within the ponds, according to documents prepared by the EPA.

“Kaiser is ultimately responsible for the cleanup of the properties, but EPA is using its emergency authority to get the time-critical nature of the work done immediately,” Dunbar said.

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