OLYMPIA - High levels of dioxin have been discovered in storm drain sediment captured at the Port of Olympia's marine terminal, raising questions about whether the port has an undiscovered contamination source on its property leaking dioxin into lower Budd Inlet.
The state Department of Ecology issued a notice of violation to the port March 2, asking the port what steps it had taken or intended to take to control the pollution.
Port officials responded in an April 1 letter to Ecology, asserting that the dioxin-tainted solids tested in the catch basins are historical, not from an ongoing pollution source, and that dioxin in the solids has not escaped into Budd Inlet.
“There’s no evidence of a violation,” said port attorney Carolyn Lake.
But Olympians for Public Accountability, a port watchdog group that filed a lawsuit against the port in 2009 for alleged stormwater violations of the federal Clean Water Act, is not impressed with the port’s response to the dioxin discovery.
“The facts are: There’s a large amount of material moving through the stormwater system, and dioxin could be attached to the suspended solids in the stormwater,” said OPA consultant Greg Wingard. “The port has disregarded its duties to protect the environment.”
Sediments in the four stormwater catch sub-basins serving the port’s 45.6-acre marine terminal were sampled in August 2010 as part of a settlement agreement the port and OPA reached in 2007 on one portion of the two parties’ stormwater permit dispute. The federal lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in October.
Dioxin level measurements from parts of two of the sub-basins were 2,020 parts per trillion, 1,960 ppt and 164 ppt, while the others ranged from 3.8 ppt to 7 ppt.
By comparison, lower Budd Inlet sediments average about 19 ppt, and the dioxin cleanup level for residential soil set by Ecology is 11.1 ppt. There is no established cleanup standard for dioxins in marine sediments.
Dioxin is a family of toxic chemical compounds that persists in the environment and accumulates in the food chain. The chemicals are a byproduct of industrial processes, petroleum products and incomplete combustion from fires, among other sources. When the port shared the results of the samples with OPA, the citizens group contacted Ecology.
“The port did not provide these results to Ecology or to any other regulatory agency,” OPA attorney Richard Smith said in a Dec. 16, 2010, letter to state Assistant Attorney General Ron Lavigne.
Lake said during an interview April 13 that the port notified Ecology staff of the sediment sample results in an early October 2010 phone conversation, but could not provide the contact or a date.
Rebecca Lawson, a southwest regional section manager in Ecology’s toxics cleanup program, said last week that she first learned of the dioxin levels from Wingard.
“None of the people I asked in the two most likely programs to be contacted recall any call or email from the port regarding the catch basin sediment results,” Ecology spokeswoman Kim Schmanke said in a Tuesday email.
Based on the sediment sample results supplied by OPA, Ecology issued the March 2 notice to the port, determining that a water quality violation has or will occur due to the pollutants in the port stormwater system. The state agency gave the port 30 days to respond.
In an April 1 letter to Ecology signed by port executive director Ed Galligan, the port said the sub-basins where the high dioxin levels were discovered collect about 1 cubic yard of sediments per year and are cleaned out periodically – the last time in 2010.
At the same time, the port suggested that the dioxin contamination is from residual solids that were trapped in the storm drain systems over time, then flushed into the catch basins. The stormwater system has been in place since the 1970s and 1980s, port officials said.
“It looks like it is legacy pollution,” Lake said, referring to past import, export and storage activities on the marine terminal.
“The port’s explanation in the letter flies in the face of common sense,” Wingard said. “It’s much more likely that the dioxin got in the stormwater system after the catch basins were cleaned out the last time.”
The port suggests that the dioxin in the stormwater sediments is not a product of the Weyerhaeuser Co. log export operations at the marine terminal or the old Cascade Pole Co. site on the port peninsula, since the portions of the drainage system over the Cascade Pole cleanup site had the lower dioxin levels. The port intends to retest for dioxin once enough sediment accumulates in the storm drain collection system. If the port finds elevated dioxin again, then it will broaden its search for the source, the letter went on to say.
The port said in its letter that there’s no evidence that dioxin found in the marine terminal stormwater lines has escaped into Budd Inlet. The port based that finding on the fact that dioxin in surface sediments sampled near the marine terminal stormwater discharge pipe outfall closest to the sediment hot spots is below Budd Inlet background levels.
If the port was serious about determining if dioxin was entering Budd Inlet via marine terminal stormwater, it would sample water and suspended solids discharged at the outfall, Wingard said.
“The port sampling plan is designed not to find any problems,” Wingard said, adding that the old Cascade Pole hazardous waste site can’t be ruled out as a source of the dioxin. Ecology is still reviewing the port’s response and has yet to determine its next course of action, Schmanke said.
Port officials said the dioxin-contaminated sediments have been placed in a contained area at the port awaiting proper disposal.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444 firstname.lastname@example.org