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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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EPA, Kaiser cleanup of former smelter in Mead shows evolution in environmental understanding

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 16, 2020

The announcement of a new public park near Mead had Mrs. Homer Townsend positively giddy in the fall of 1969.

“I was afraid to let my children swim there because of the glass and unsanitary conditions,” Townsend told The Spokesman-Review at the time. “But it had such potential, that I decided to start writing letters.”

Around that undeveloped swimming hole, plans began to form for picnic tables, restrooms and more. The key feature drawing bathers and fishers to the area was a cascading waterfall of warm water, runoff from the nearby massive aluminum smelter operated by Kaiser that made Peone Creek, as it was called, the perfect temperature for a summer dip.

Fifty years later, with the assistance of environmental agencies that were either in their infancy or not yet in operation when Townsend authored those letters, crews are trying to stop that flow of water from the closed plant into the Little Spokane River watershed. A deeper understanding of the asbestos and harmful chemicals contained in building siding and pipes have today’s regulators worried about pollution at a level that was difficult, if not impossible, to foresee in 1970.

“Our approach is that this needs to be done,” said Brooks Stanfield, the Environmental Protection Agency’s on-scene coordinator for the $10 million cleanup project that’s been underway at the site off Hawthorne Road since August.

For the past several months, a crew of 25 workers – many of them local – have been dismantling asbestos-laden pipes and siding, as well as hauling away piles of waste material with large concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and other harmful chemicals.

To the north, contractors under the employ of Kaiser Aluminum Investments Co. are dredging settling ponds where stormwater that ran off the siding and into the asbestos-laden pipes would settle, before draining out of an underground aqueduct into the creek to the northwest. Several tons of sediment at the bottom of those ponds, which have sat untouched for years, according to Stanfield, have been removed.

“These ponds are used, operated and should be maintained by the owner of the former smelter site, (which is no longer affiliated with KAIC or any other Kaiser entity) to provide treatment of stormwater under an Industrial Stormwater General Permit issued by Ecology to that party,” the company, which was reorganized following a bankruptcy filing in 2002, said in a statement. “Under EPA’s oversight, KAIC has also treated stormwater run-off that had accumulated in the ponds as well as all run-off that has accumulated during pond sediment removal activities.”

The complicated cleanup process has spanned multiple decades, several property owners and environmental regulatory agencies at both the state and federal level. Kaiser closed the smelter in December 2000, and the bankruptcy filing two years later sold the property in 2004. It has since changed hands two more times, even as environmental regulators noted contamination in nearby groundwater and in discharges to the local watershed.

Recognizing the still-extensive amount of cleanup that needed to occur in 2019, the state’s Ecology Department asked the EPA to inspect the site and determine what actions needed to be taken.

“The site was open, there was definite exposure to people if they’re accessing that site,” said Brook Beeler, director of the Eastern Washington regional office of the Ecology Department. “The stormwater ponds, the conveyance system, the tons of contaminated sediment. There’s all kinds of nasty stuff.”

It was the findings of a study by the Ecology Department on the quality of water spilling from the Kaiser pipe that were touted by county park officials in November 1970, when Peone Creek Park was dedicated.

“A recent test report from the State Department of Ecology indicates that the quality of the discharge water equals the quality of water in the creek,” reads a Nov. 17, 1970 news release that is part of the file on the project retained by the Spokane County Parks Department.

When that report was issued, the environmental agency was just 9 months old. The EPA would begin operations a few weeks later, in December 1970.

Any records related to a test in 1970 have likely been turned over to the state archives, Beeler said Thursday.

Even so, such a test would not have been looking for the materials EPA workers have now been tasked with removing from the old smelter site. Congress did not take action on regulating PCBs until 1976, when they banned domestic production of the chemical. That same year, the EPA issued its first criteria for PCB exposure, based on the risk to human health and aquatic life. It was set at 0.001 parts per billion. More stringent standards followed in the ’80s and ’90s.

In 1978, regulators discovered dangerous arsenic and fluoride levels in the groundwater believed to be caused by the smelting operations. The discovery forced the construction of waterlines in the place of private wells and changes to on-site operations at the smelter to reduce pollution.

As for the swimming hole, the pollution question is murkier, Stanfield said.

“It’s almost impossible to know,” Stanfield said of the potential pollutants in water discharged into the river during those swimming hole days.

But he and Jeff Fowlow, another site coordinator with the EPA, noted that the type of contamination they’re working to remove now is a result of years of decay and deterioration, conditions that wouldn’t have existed in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the plant was in full operation.

It’s unclear what happened to the park plans. News reports indicate a gate was stolen from its concrete mooring at the site in June 1972, and when voters were asked to pitch in $100,000 to help develop the site along with several other planned parks in September 1976, they voted the measure down.

The land remains undeveloped, accessible only via a viaduct beneath U.S. Highway 2. The promotional materials from the county parks department include plans for footbridges, an outdoor fireplace, marked hiking trails and a shelter, but no other records exist with the department. Kaiser had agreed to pay $2,500 to help improve the area, according to news reports at the time.

Kaiser declined to comment on the pipe at Peone Creek Park, saying it was built and maintained by an entity that no longer exists following the bankruptcy filing.

The land for the park was leased from the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife for a 10-year period ending in 1979, and there’s no evidence it was renewed.

Among the swimming hole bathers was iconic Spokane artist Harold Balazs, who told The Spokesman-Review in 2002 that the warm water granted the creek where he made his home an “enchanted” quality in the cold, with bullfrogs croaking well out of season.

“One Christmas Day, we went over to the other side of the highway and sat in the warm water coming out of a big ol’ pipe,” Balazs told the paper at the time.

News reports at the time also reported “beer parties” as a frequent occurrence on the property. A drunken fight believed to have been inspired by racial animosity broke out in June 1970, and residents had been raising concerns about dead fish in the stream as far back as 1956, according to news reports in the Spokane Daily Chronicle.

The Fish and Wildlife Department sold the land to Kaiser in 1999, according to records. Kaiser included the property in its sale, and the land is now owned by the same LLC that purchased the former smelter site in 2014.

The EPA hopes to complete its work this winter, which will leave the former smelter property with building frames and other materials that will hopefully entice someone to finish the clearing and prepare the 170-acre property for productive use, Stanfield said. That will include detaching the existing storm system from the adjacent properties, and ensuring the waterway that once played host to neighborhood kids seeking summertime respite no longer flows at all into the creek.

“There’s no one company that can take a property all the way through restoration,” said Stanfield, noting that the former smelter cleanup is one of the largest undertaken by the EPA in the region. “Nobody ever wants to touch it.”

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