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Legacy of Kaiser Aluminum Continues to Impact Watershed

Sara Ben Olson

Greenstone Corporation’s plan for development of 300 acres near Costco has been met with excitement. The Kendall Yards developer, building on the site of the Mead Works Kaiser Aluminum property? Wahoo! However, many are confused: the Spokesman-Review has reported on EPA cleanups, leaking settling ponds, and asbestos contamination. Some say the property is actually a Superfund site. Will the development include the former Kaiser Smelter Facility? Are PCBs really being released into Deadman Creek? These are questions I set out to answer.

The Kaiser Aluminum Smelter was built in 1942 to aid the war effort. It closed in 2000. For many of those  years, it operated without regulation or oversight of its waste disposal practices. For nearly four decades, 37-acres of the property have been regulated by the  EPA as a Superfund site. Yet, Kaiser’s environmental  impact continues to spread: in the groundwater, and  downstream 1.5 miles north to Deadman Creek.  

What was once a sprawling property owned by Kaiser, has since been divided into at least four parcels. Only one continues to be owned by the aluminum company. Another, in the center of the former property, has been an EPA Superfund site since 1983. In 2017, a section to the north was sold to Costco. Two other parcels were the subject of an EPA Removal project from summer 2020, through last December. One of these, owned by Kaiser Aluminum Investments, is the site of Greenstone’s proposed development.

The former Kaiser Smelter Facility uses a storm drain system, which empties through pipes into settling ponds on the adjacent, Kaiser-owned parcel. These settling ponds then drain into Deadman Creek. Ecology samples from 2019 showed high levels of PCBs throughout the stormwater collection system, including the settling ponds. Testing also showed metals, fluoride, and sulfate were moving offsite in stormwater.

In a joint letter to the EPA in 2019, the Department of Ecology and Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency requested assistance: “We believe an emergency removal action is necessary to mitigate an immediate threat to public health, welfare, and the environment posed by the presence of uncontrolled hazardous materials and contaminants left on the property”(Ecology, 2019).

Brooks Stanfield, EPA’s Onsite Coordinator for the  removal project readily admits the Kaiser Smelter  Facility & drainage ponds were a mess. Carcinogenic  material embedded in siding, insulation, and equipment  was heaped in piles all over the site. EPA documents  described potliner and “building materials . . . high in  both asbestos and PCBs.” The Kaiser site, where the  ponds are located, was bad, too: “There were enough  PCBs in those ponds to contaminate a lake the size of  Lake Coeur d’Alene times 30,” Stanfield later told the Spokesman-Review.  

In their letter to the EPA, Spokane’s agencies noted that the properties & their contaminants posed “a risk to plant and wildlife communities. Contaminated stormwater runoff from the site flows through Deadman Creek, into the Little Spokane River and ultimately into the Spokane River, a waterway already heavily challenged by PCBs and heavy metal contaminants” (Ecology, 2019).

EPA’s job in a Removal project is to dispose of materials actively leaching toxic chemicals. Stanfield told the Spokesman-Review that the former smelter cleanup is one of the largest undertaken by the EPA in the region. The project removed accumulated refuse in storm drain basins, and directed cleanup of contaminated sediment in the settling ponds.

In the course of the removal, holes were discovered in one of the settling ponds. With EPA’s oversight, Kaiser repaired the settling ponds. They did not test beneath the ponds, to discover whether leaking did occur. Today, the ponds continue in active use.

Stanfield underscored that soil and groundwater testing are not key pieces of an EPA Removal project, “We did not use testing as a metric to assess the completion of the EPA’s Removal. Our goal was removal.” The piles of old siding and the contaminated sediment are gone, but the Department of Ecology is left to enforce followup testing of soils and stormwater runoff. This testing is up to the property owners: Kaiser Aluminum Investments, and Spokane Recycling LLC.

Spokane Recycling LLC has been in almost continual violation of monitoring and cleanup requirements since 2016. As recently as December 2020, elevated levels of contaminants were still being detected in effluent in Deadman Creek – yet orders for more testing and mitigation were ignored. A Notice of Noncompliance was sent March 16th, 2021 which threatened fines of $10,000 per day if they did not comply. As of this writing, they seem to have come into compliance – for the time being.

The Kaiser Superfund Site

The 38-year-old Kaiser Superfund site is situated  just north of the Kaiser smelter facility, nestled between  the facility and the future Greenstone development.  The site includes potlining solid waste, a 25-acre wet  scrubber sludge bed, and a plume of groundwater  contaminated with cyanide and fluoride (Ecology  2002). EPA began managing this property after it was  discovered, in the late 1970’s, that spent potliner was  contaminating nearby wells with cyanide and fluoride.  

Ecology’s website describes the groundwater plume stemming from the Superfund site: “[it] is 145 feet below ground, 800 – 1500 feet wide, and travels approximately 2.5 miles to the Little Spokane River. It then discharges into a series of springs.”

According to Stanfield, who has no involvement in the Superfund cleanup, that project has just moved into a new phase to address the groundwater plume. Using wells on location, Ecology (with EPA oversight) has implemented a “pump and treat” system for

contaminated groundwater. The system extracts groundwater, then uses biological and physical treatment to remove cyanide and fluoride, before returning treated water to the aquifer. This system was scheduled to begin running in March of 2021.

New projects are hoped for on the Kaiser/Greenstone property as well. According to Rob Buchert at Ecology, “Kaiser and Spokane Recycling and Ecology are all working to get the storm water line abandoned,” ending piped discharge to Deadman Creek. However, it is not yet clear what alternative will be introduced for the capture and treatment of stormwater flows from the former Smelter Facility.

Questions remain. Whether there is scientific and legal justification for treating these heavily contaminated parcels as distinct from the Superfund site is a question waiting to be answered. Officials at the Department of Ecology were not available for further comment before press time, so as of now, we have not seen a map of the PCB plumes in our watershed. We do not yet have confirmation that the parcel Greenstone is eyeing for mixed-use development has been comprehensively tested for contaminants in its soils.

Right now, Greenstone Corporation is pursuing a Comprehensive Plan Amendment and Zoning Designation to permit children to live on the parcel they hope to buy from Kaiser. This is the parcel that is home to the two settling ponds. Currently, the Agreement only allows senior housing.

The County Planning Department instructs those wishing to make a public comment on the change in designation to send in a Public Records Request – they were unable to say whether there is a public comment period on the designation, or whether a deadline for public comment has passed. The parcel number is: 36096.9063

Nichol Savko, a former environmental engineer who  has consulted on cleanup projects in the Spokane area  (she has no connection to any activity at the Kaiser  property), points out that organizations like FLSRV are  free to monitor downstream effects. Volunteers can  ensure that cleanup and development projects are not  having negative impacts on our watershed. Samples  taken from Deadman Creek or in the Little Spokane  River, following EPA protocols, can be tested for  asbestos, PCBs, and other contaminants.

Kaiser Superfund Site
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