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State, Alcoa Still in Landfill Talks

by Erik Robinson
The Columbian, July 17, 2009

Site is leaking pollutants into groundwater, raising concerns about river

Lured by inexpensive hydro power, Alcoa opened the Northwest's first aluminum smelter along the Columbia River shore in Vancouver in 1940.

In the short term, the plant turned out the raw material for American warplanes that eventually overwhelmed the Axis powers in World War II. Over the long term, the smelter was the linchpin of Clark County manufacturing for more than half a century, employing as many as 2,000 people at a time.

Now, only one last vestige of Alcoa's imprint remains.

An old unlined landfill, containing industrial waste consolidated throughout the 218-acre property, is leaching pollution into groundwater. State environmental regulators, who had expected to finalize a cleanup plan earlier this year, say they are continuing to negotiate an agreement with the Pittsburgh-based company to address the leaking landfill.

"We want to make sure we're protecting the river," said Carol Kraege, manager of the industrial section of the state Department of Ecology.

Groundwater near the landfill is tainted with high levels of trichloroethylene, or TCE, and Kraege said the agency is concerned about TCE that has already migrated to the Columbia. The substance is a colorless liquid historically used as a solvent to remove grease from metal, and federal health authorities suspect it causes cancer with long-term exposure.

State regulators and Alcoa delayed addressing the landfill so that the company could first address a hot spot of PCB pollution in the Columbia River shoreline.

Late last year, Alcoa removed thousands of cubic yards of sediment on the Columbia shore fronting the old smelter, which had shut down during the West Coast energy crisis of 2000. The shoreline had been polluted with polychlorinated biphenyls, another industrial solvent linked to cancer and other health problems, at concentrations as high as 300,000 parts per billion.

Alcoa and state regulators delayed the landfill cleanup until the shoreline could be addressed.

"We didn't come to an agreement in a timely way, and we didn't want to interrupt the PCB cleanup," Kraege said. "That was our top priority."

Alcoa officials said the company ultimately spent in excess of $10 million on the shoreline cleanup alone. That's on top of another $45 million the company has spent finding and removing pollution throughout the rest of the site, which the Port of Vancouver acquired late last year.

Today, the smelter buildings have been cleared away and the site has been re-purposed as Terminal 5 for the Port of Vancouver.

The smelter property, once fueled by cheap federal hydropower, has effectively given way to the latest boom of renewable energy. Port spokesman Nelson Holmberg said the port is using Terminal 5 to store turbines destined for wind farms east of the Cascades in Washington and Oregon.

Erik Robinson
State, Alcoa Still in Landfill Talks
The Columbian, July 17, 2009

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