Pieces of people’s shattered lives can be seen everywhere at the landslide that devastated a rural neighborhood just two weeks ago.
From the beginning, authorities worried about hazards that could be hidden in the muddy aftermath.
Every home has chemicals that could be hazardous in high enough concentrations, from bleaches to pesticides to paint thinners.
“You go poke into your home and you’re going to find hazardous materials,” said Hanady Kader, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman.
Then there’s biohazards from such a scene. Thirty houses and a dozen secondary homes were leveled in the mudslide. All of those homes had septic tanks that could have released human waste into the mud. Even the remains of the victims and their animals are a potential biohazard.
On Friday, authorities said they have found little evidence of chemical contamination at the site. Instead, they’re finding isolated hot spots of pollution.
“We’re finding the chemical contamination is very, very minimal,” said Dick Walker, spill responder for the Washington State Department of Ecology.
They believe that few of those chemicals spread into the North Fork Stillaguamish River. The mudslide actually pushed homes and cars away from the river, keeping all of those household wastes as well as oil and gas from vehicles out of the water, Walker said.
The Department of Ecology has taken water samples down river and upriver in the past two weeks.
“We just aren’t seeing anything,” Walker said.
So far, crews haven’t found any of the septic tanks. “They’re likely buried under mud,” Walker said.
And they don’t believe that any of the homes were hooked up to heating oil. Oil from damaged tanks could have seeped into the groundwater.
The Department of Ecology is concerned about dirt and mud washing into the river. Several species of salmon — including endangered Chinook and winter and summer steelhead — are found in the Stilly.
Mud can make it difficult for adult fish to swim upriver and smolts downriver. The dirt and mud can smother eggs and fry and damage Riparian habitat for future generations of fish.
It’s something they’ll need to monitor, Walker said.
With hundreds of workers on the scene, officials say they’re still exercising “an abundance of caution.”
Every worker who comes down from the debris field gets the mud on their boots and clothes washed off at a tanker truck, then they go to a Hazmat Decon Pool to brush more mud off with soap and water. A crew of Washington National Guard troops maintain a tent where workers are sprayed with water a third time.
At tents filled with food for relief workers, cardboard signs with handwritten messages are everywhere: “Wash Your Hands Before Eating Please!”
Richard Bradley, a doctor who works for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said they’re watching for diarrhea or any other signs of illnesses. So far, he said, they’ve only encountered what could be expected from so many workers in a debris field: “Sprains, strains, cuts and scratches.”
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