Ecology Ramps Up Alcoa Cleanup
by Erik Robinson
The Columbian, December 17, 2008
Effort hits milestone, with bulk of pollutants removed from river
A pair of clamshell dredges working night and day have removed as much as 90 percent of the polychlorinated biphenyls polluting a stretch of Columbia River near the site of Alcoa's defunct aluminum smelter, officials reported Tuesday.
"It's a major milestone," said Jay Manning, director of the state Department of Ecology.
The dredging began Dec. 1.
State environmental regulators have been aware that the shoreline was polluted with PCBs since 1997, but had yet to force a cleanup of the suspected carcinogen. After researchers last year revealed alarmingly high levels of PCBs in clams in the area, Gov. Chris Gregoire ordered the Department of Ecology to accelerate the cleanup.
PCBs don't break down and they accumulate in the tissue of aquatic life, especially in long-lived creatures such as sturgeon.
Gregoire, a former Ecology Department director, called on Manning to accelerate the cleanup after The Columbian editorialized for action.
In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, officials said they cut a year off the normal two-year process of planning and acquiring the permits necessary to dig in the river. At the same time, Ecology required a tough cleanup standard for 3,500 feet of shoreline at the Alcoa site.
A hot spot of pollution 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 is requiring Alcoa to remove as much as 95 percent of PCB contamination, enough to leave no more than 98 ppb of residual contamination.
Alcoa has expended "in excess of $10 million" on the shoreline cleanup, said Mark Stiffler, the company's director of asset management. That's on top of $45 million the company has spent finding and removing pollution across the 218-acre smelter site in west Vancouver.
"We really view this as the final act in putting the site back into productive use," Stiffler said.
The Port of Vancouver last week sold $32.55 million in bonds to buy the property and get it ready for new industrial uses. The port has agreed to pay $48.25 million to Alcoa and Evergreen Aluminum, a separate company that owns about half the site. Port spokesman Nelson Holmberg said the port can make up the difference by drawing on its $37.5 million reserve account.
Alcoa expects the dredging of tainted sediment to be completed by mid-January, Stiffler said.
Alcoa brought the smelter online in 1940, the vanguard of an industry drawn to the Northwest's abundant supply of relatively cheap hydroelectricity. It closed during the West Coast energy crisis of 2000. A new operator gave up on reopening it in late 2006, freeing the site for redevelopment.
The shoreline cleanup must be completed by Feb. 28 to avoid harming salmon.
The company has so far removed about 5,000 cubic yards of the most heavily polluted sediment, to be hauled away to a hazardous waste landfill. It expects to remove a total of 45,000 cubic yards of material, then place clean sand on top.
"We'll end up with great environmental benefits, human health protection and greater economic activity," Manning said. "We believe, and hope, we have been responsive to community concerns down there about the lack of progress."
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