By Bill Sheets Herald Writer
EVERETT — The soil in two large north Everett parks has been found to contain arsenic from the former Asarco smelter that closed 100 years ago, but state officials say there is no immediate health risk.
Recent testing has shown that Legion Park, at the northwestern tip of the city, and Wiggums Hollow Park, in the northeast, contain arsenic levels significantly higher than the 20 parts per million the state considers the threshold for requiring cleanup.
Arsenic is not absorbed through the skin but there is a long-term risk of developing cancer for people who swallow contaminated soil over a period of years, such as if children play in the dirt and put their hands in their mouths, officials say.
“It’s possible that the more the time goes by the more your risk is going to be increased, but it’s still relatively small compared to other things we do like smoke and drink and eat poorly,” said Jim White, a toxicologist with the state Department of Health.
The highest level found in a public place in Legion Park was 314 parts per million near the picnic shelter next to the playground, officials said. The highest level found in Wiggums Hollow was 210 parts per million.
The overall pollution level is about what was expected, said Meg Bommarito, a manager in the state’s toxics cleanup program.
The Department of Ecology is currently removing dirt from residential yards in northeast Everett found to be contaminated by the arsenic and replacing it with clean soil. The arsenic level in the parks is comparable to what’s been found in the yards in the surrounding area, Bommarito said.
Some of the soil in the parks will eventually have to be excavated and replaced, but because of the relatively low risk this probably won’t be done for at least a few more years, she said.
“We are looking at doing the residential areas first, that’s our priority because that’s where people spend most of their time,” Bommarito said.
When the work is done depends on progress on the residential cleanups and the budget.
“In the meantime, we’ll be working on outreach and education for park users,” Bommarito said.
The state already had seven “Dirt Alert” signs at Legion Park and three at Wiggums Hollow providing information on the Asarco pollution and listing suggested precautions, she said. The Ecology Department is now making new signs with updated information and plans to put about 14 at Legion and six at Wiggums Hollow.
Asarco operated the Everett smelter from 1894 to 1912 at what is now the intersection of E. Marine View Drive and Highway 529. The smelter’s smokestacks rained arsenic onto a 1 square mile area of north Everett, but the level of contamination wasn’t fully known until decades later.
About 100 parcels were cleaned up between 1999 and 2007 by the state, the Everett Housing Authority and the city of Everett. In 2009, the state received $34 million in a settlement from Grupo Mexico, a mining company based in Mexico City that acquired Asarco, and that money is being used for the cleanup.
The money is part of a larger $188 million settlement to repair environmental damage here and in other parts of the state, including Tacoma.
Yards with the highest level of contamination are being cleaned up first. The work began late last year, with 24 parcels cleaned up as of last month. Altogether, more than 500 properties are targeted for cleanup by 2022.
Over the winter, the Ecology Department took 1,100 core samples 2 feet deep — 678 at Legion and 422 at Wiggums Hollow, Bommarito said. The analysis was recently completed.
The arsenic was fairly evenly spread through Legion Park while at Wiggums Hollow it was more concentrated in the southern half, Bommarito said.
The playground at Legion Park, near the picnic shelter, was not tested because the soil was replaced with mulch and a concrete liner put in place when the playground was installed, Bommarito said.
Contamination at the ballfields at Legion Park was below the 20 parts-per-million threshold, she said. Levels higher than 20 parts per million, but under 100, were found on the ballfield at Wiggums Hollow. The field is in disrepair and appears little used.
Exposure to dust over a period of years presents a risk but not through breathing, White said, because the soil particles containing the arsenic are too large to be absorbed into the lungs.
“It’s not so much from breathing it but from swallowing,” he said. “It gets stuck in the nose and mouth and throat.”
The biggest concern is for small children who crawl on the ground and put their hands in their mouths, White said.
“It’s good to watch them and if they are putting their hands and dirty toys in their mouths, go wash their hands and their toys.”
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.
A public meeting on the Asarco smelter cleanup, including new information about arsenic pollution found in Legion and Wiggums Hollow parks, is planned for Thursday night. The meeting is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. at the Snohomish County PUD Auditorium, 2320 California St. A presentation is planned for 6:30 p.m.
The state Department of Ecology recommends that anyone who visits Legion or Wiggums Hollow parks in north Everett take the following precautions:
• Wash hands and toys with soap and water after playing in the dirt.
• Wash hands before eating or putting anything in your mouth.
• Take off your shoes when you get home.
• Wash off your pets’ dirty paws and bathe pets often if they go to one of the parks.
• Wash blackberries or other fruit from these areas before eating it.
For more information call 425-530-5169 or go to tinyurl.com/76rcs9f.