State Orders Massive Cleanup
by Erik Robinson
A PCB-tainted stretch of Columbia River shoreline will be cleaned to the highest level that's technically feasible, state regulators announced Thursday.
Alcoa will have to dredge up and haul away a huge volume of sediment. Department of Ecology officials said the company will remove tainted sediment as deep as 3 feet from a "hot spot" of pollution that measures roughly 2 acres in size - about 300 by 350 feet.
Alcoa, which opened its Vancouver aluminum smelter in 1940, isn't disputing the state's requirement.
"It's probably one of the most conservative cleanup standards ever issued by the state," said Mark Stiffler, Alcoa's director of asset planning and management in Pittsburgh. "Given the conditions that we have in this issue, it's a standard that we can achieve."
The 1,800-foot-long polluted stretch of shoreline fronts the defunct Alcoa smelter in Vancouver. Even though the state had been aware that polychlorinated biphenyls tainted the river since 1997, it had yet to force a cleanup of the suspected carcinogen.
Then, earlier this year, researchers with the Army Corps of Engineers discovered alarmingly high levels of PCBs in the tissue of a common type of clam living in the area near Alcoa. At 3,500 parts per billion, the level of PCBs in clams taken from the Alcoa shoreline measured higher than any collected in Portland's notoriously polluted lower Willamette River.
The discovery, and subsequent media attention, caught the attention of Gov. Chris Gregoire, who last month directed the state Department of Ecology to accelerate cleanup of the site.
The hot spot includes PCB concentrations as high as 300,000 parts per billion, while contamination in the broader area of shoreline ranges between 100 to 1,000 ppb. The state will require Alcoa to remove as much as 95 percent of PCB contamination, enough to leave no more than 98 ppb of residual contamination.
"It's based on the most protective level we can get," said Chance Asher, a supervisor in the agency's toxics cleanup program.
All the removed sediment will be hauled away aboard barges and replaced with clean sediment dredged out of other areas of the river.
A health threat
State officials said the company has been cooperative.
"We now have an accelerated schedule to make sure we're in the river next year," said Carol Kraege, manager of the agency's industrial section. "They want to get the cleanup done."
Alcoa also will dig up and dispose of all clams on the site, to minimize the chance of anyone harvesting them directly - or allowing them to be consumed by other aquatic life.
PCBs tend to concentrate in long-lived creatures as the top of the food chain, such as sturgeon.
The substance, historically used as an electrical lubricant, has been banned from production in the U.S. since the 1970s because of negative health effects.
Research shows long-term exposure to PCBs causes cancer and other health problems. The longer and greater the exposure, the greater the risk. Toxicologists say health problems can crop up with exposure to PCBs through the food web, such as by eating sturgeon, which devour the clams, shell and all. Federal health researchers have also raised concern about the pollutant slowing behavioral and neurological development in babies born to women eating PCB-contaminated fish.
Another area of concern
The Alcoa site isn't the only PCB-tainted shoreline in Vancouver.
Petitioned by Vancouver environmental activist Dvija Michael Bertish, the Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to conduct a preliminary assessment of industrial pollutants in Vancouver Lake as well as the lake's flushing channel to the Columbia - about two miles downstream from the Alcoa site.
Researchers found high levels of PCBs in clams collected near the flushing channel, though not as high as those found at the Alcoa site.
"The EPA is committed to assessing these areas to determine whether it warrants attention under the EPA Superfund Program," Daniel Opalski, director of the EPA's Office of Environmental Cleanup in Seattle, wrote in a Nov. 27 letter to Bertish.
Earlier this year, researchers revealed that clams collected from the Columbia River near the old Alcoa smelter in Vancouver contained alarmingly high levels of carcinogenic PCBs. State officials had been aware of the pollution since 1997, but had yet to force a cleanup.
Ordered to hasten the cleanup by Gov. Chris Gregoire, state regulators on Thursday announced a preliminary agreement with Alcoa to remove a huge volume of sediment from the shoreline.
Alcoa will complete a formal remedial investigation and report by the end of this month. Officials expect dredging to begin during a fish-protection window in November of next year and the cleanup to be finished by February 2009.
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