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Holdouts resist Asarco cleanup efforts

For most people, it sounded like the sensible thing to do.

Property owners whose yards were polluted by windblown fallout from the old Asarco smelter could get the top layer of their dirt scraped away and replaced for free, courtesy of Asarco.

All the landscaping would be replaced, right down to brick pathways, irrigation systems and bird baths – even the marigolds in flower beds.

Since the EPA initiated the Superfund yard cleanup program in 1993, anywhere from 1 inch to as much as 2 feet of soil has been lifted from 4,000 public and private properties in Ruston, north Tacoma and Point Defiance Park. In all, 250,000 cubic yards of arsenic- and lead-contaminated soil has been hauled off to toxic storage.

But, good as the program sounds, not everybody has been crazy about buying into it.

According to the EPA, about 100 private homeowners out of 1,500 in the Superfund cleanup area either have refused to let scientists test their property or – after contaminated dirt was discovered – refused to let cleanup crews onto their property.

Most of the holdouts live in the outer rings of the EPA’s target-shaped cleanup zone, on parcels not as badly polluted as those closer to the old emissions stack near Point Defiance.

But a handful live in the EPA bull’s-eye, within the area most contaminated with lead and arsenic. They’ve resisted certified letters, phone calls and personal visits from EPA employees.

The holdouts are not eager to advertise their presence, and the EPA refuses to identify them, either by name or by location of property, citing privacy concerns. The EPA denied a News Tribune Freedom of Information request for their addresses.

“Disclosure of the information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” Lori Cohen, acting director of the EPA’s office of environmental cleanup, said in a written response to the request.

Last fall, the EPA began ramping up its efforts to convince the holdouts, stirred by evidence that the remaining yards are more polluted than previously thought. The agency also was enriched with $5 million in federal economic stimulus funds allocated specifically to wrap up the yard cleanup program.

The EPA’s resolve to finish the job was strengthened further last month by an agreement in Asarco’s bankruptcy proceedings. The judge in the case approved a deal in which Asarco, purchased by Grupo Mexico, will fully fund all of its environmental liabilities in the United States, including the Ruston site.

“I can’t tell you at this point what enforcement action we’ll take,” said Kevin Rochlin, the EPA’s manager of the Ruston yard cleanup project. “The job that I have been tasked with is to convince people to let us clean up their property. It’s a good program. We have the money. It reduces risk, and we really want to encourage people to take advantage of it.”

The standoff over the remaining yards is taking place at a tender confluence of law, environmental science and politics, and it raises difficult questions.

To what extent do the remaining properties genuinely constitute a public health risk? Under what circumstances should a government force private property owners to clean their property in the interest of the public good?

A SHRUNKEN ASARCO

While the EPA won’t divulge the names and addresses of the holdouts, a huge map on the wall of the Asarco cleanup office in Ruston clearly tells the story.

Every property, right of way, planting strip and alley in the square mile designated for cleanup is color-coded to indicate its status. Holdouts are marked with bright red cross-hatching.

Asarco’s presence in Ruston has shrunk from a massive industrial complex to a single document-strewn room in the basement of the old Ruston School building on Shirley Street.

The number of local Asarco employees has dropped from more than 1,300 in the smelter’s heyday to just two: Karen Pickett and Bob Miller.

Pickett, who seems glad to have company in the tomblike office, lays out the details of the yard cleanup program, using the map as a visual aid.

The yard rehab area is divided into four zones, roughly concentric circles radiating out from the old plant. The zones relate to concentrations of pollutants.

To determine extent of pollution, technicians tested for contamination by setting up grids and taking random samples down to a depth of 18 inches.

Samples containing more than 230 parts per million of arsenic or 500 ppm of lead indicated pollution sufficient to require cleanup. The remedy chosen by the EPA was to excavate the polluted soil and replace it with clean dirt.

Generally speaking, deposition of the fallout depended on the distance from the stack and prevailing winds.

Virtually all properties in Zone 1 exceeded the standards; 80 percent of them exceeded standards in Zone 2; 70 percent in Zone 3 and 50 percent in Zone 4.

REASONS FOR RESISTANCE

There’s no single reason people refuse to have their yards cleaned up.

“I don’t think we’ve got the same reason from anybody we’ve talked to,” Rochlin said. “There is no single profile.”

However, he said, those most inclined to resist are those who have lived in the area the longest. Many still tend to feel loyalty to Asarco, he said, even after all the reorganizations and bankruptcies and lawsuits.

Some, he said, recall the toxicity of the smelter with a strange kind of pride. They remain loyal despite air pollution so corrosive it peeled paint off cars parked in the employees’ lot.

The most common argument is that the cleanup is unnecessary, Rochlin said. They doubt the fallout really poses any significant health risks.

“They say, ‘I worked there 40 years and I feel fine,’” Rochlin said. “’What’s the problem?’”

“Some of the arguments have been heartbreaking,” Rochlin said. “One woman said her husband had done all the landscaping. He died, and she didn’t want to risk changing it.”

Others have pets buried in their yards and don’t want the remains disturbed. Some don’t like big government.

Still others worry about favorite bushes or trees. Cleanup crews go to great lengths to make sure plants survive, laboriously hand-digging around trees and packing clean soil around the roots. Even so, owners worry their trees will die.

Cheryl Perkins, who lives in the North End near Jane Clark Park, eventually agreed to have her property cleaned. But she was originally reluctant, she said.

“My grandkids were here for the summer and I didn’t want to have it done while they were playing in the yard,” she said.

Also, Perkins said, she didn’t want to hurt Asarco – even though her brother-in-law, a longtime employee, died of lung problems.

“I didn’t want to take advantage of them,” Perkins said. “I didn’t want to profit from Asarco going under. They employed a lot of people – some of them relatives.”

NOT GOING TO ‘ROLL OVER’

One of the last holdouts lives less than one-quarter of a mile from the spot where the old Asarco emissions stack was imploded Jan. 17, 1993.

The landowner doesn’t want to be identified – not because she is ashamed of her stance but because she lives alone and worries about the attention publicity might bring.

She lives in a million-dollar house with a megamillion-dollar view, a vast panorama of Commencement Bay, Browns Point and Vashon Island.

Her reasons for not participating, she said, are basically two: She doesn’t want her elaborate landscaping ruined, and she doesn’t believe the contamination discovered on her property poses any real threat.

She said the EPA has lobbied her heavily to change her mind. She’s had phone calls, certified letters, personal visits and most recently, she says, what amounted to threats.

“They indicated they may sue me,” she said. “If they do, I’m certainly not going to just lie down and roll over.”

Mostly, she said, she just wants to be left alone.

“For me, this isn’t just my house, it’s my world,” she said. “I don’t want people coming in here ripping it up, and I don’t think there’s a rational reason to do that.”

“I’ve spent the last 12 years of my life doing this garden,” she said. “I don’t want to start over. I’m too old to start over.”

She doesn’t believe the contamination, which technicians discovered 18 inches below the surface, is hazardous, as long as it’s left where it is.

“I can’t imagine it’s really a problem,” she said. “There’s no way it’s going to have any effect on me unless I dig 18 inches down and eat the dirt. … There are a lot of dangers in the world, but this one doesn’t scare me very much.”

Rochlin says there definitely are risks – not only to the people who live on polluted properties, who might garden in the dirt, track it inside and whose children may play in it, but also a risk that blowing dirt will fall on neighboring yards.

But the property owners have a point: At levels measured in parts per million, it is difficult to establish health effects on individual levels. The threshold at which the EPA mandates cleanup is a level believed to cause one additional cancer case in 2,000 people.

The issue, Rochlin said, is not so much a question of harm caused by one property owner but the aggregate over the entire area.

Justifying tough enforcement in individual backyards easily can seem ridiculous. It is like insisting a single boat emptying its sewage will endanger Puget Sound or that a single uncertified wood stove in Spanaway will give somebody lung cancer.

The point, Rochlin says, is that the pollution is a health hazard on a broader scale.

“It’s not, ‘You will die tomorrow from working in your yard,’” he said. “The risk is at the public health level.

“That’s why we have drinking-water laws. That’s why we have air laws. It’s not just the person who owns the property now but whoever lives there in the future. It remains a health risk until it’s cleaned up.”

Mark Gosnell had his Ruston yard cleaned up several years ago, back when the EPA did its first run-through. He thinks the holdouts probably should be required to have theirs cleaned too.

“You always have a few quirky people who have their own ideas,” he said. “Sometimes, for the good of everybody, you have to do some things you might not want to. That’s why they have building codes and stuff like that.”

On a sunny morning last week, Gosnell was on his knees in his front yard, digging in his garden.

The irony of his own cleanup, he said, was that by the time the EPA tested his soil, he already had moved most of it, recontouring his yard to open up the lower story of his house.

“They only found two little problem spots,” Gosnell said. “Everything else was buried.”

While he thinks the EPA should make sure everybody complies, Gosnell said it’s no big deal to him one way or another.

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