Arsenic-laced dirt carted off as crews replace yards in north Everett

EVERETT — J.D. Wilkinson is glad his yard was recently torn up and dug out with backhoes.

Not only was contaminated dirt removed from his property, but new soil was brought in and the yard was replanted, complete with a new lawn of fresh sod. He didn’t pay a dime.

“It’s easier maintenance and looks better than it did before,” said Wilkinson, who lives in northeast Everett. “I’m ecstatic.”

Wilkinson’s house, at the corner of Butler and Hawthorne streets, is in an area that was exposed to arsenic that floated down in smoke emitted by the Asarco smelter more than 100 years ago.

His yard is one of 25 parcels in north Everett

Some work has been done on the 12 parcels east of Broadway, ranging from digging to full restoration. The state plans to start work on yards on the west side of Broadway shortly after Christmas.

“It’s moving a little bit faster than we thought,” said Meg Bommarito, a manager in the state’s toxics cleanup program. “We’re pleased with the amount of work we’ve been able to get done so far.”

About 60 more parcels are scheduled to be cleaned up and restored in 2012, and 500 more are to be done by 2019, officials said.

Asarco operated the Everett smelter from 1894 to 1912 at what is now the intersection of E. Marine View Drive and Highway 529.

There are several reasons why it took so long for the cleanup work to be done, according to the state.

Dangerously high levels of arsenic, along with lead and cadmium, however, weren’t discovered at the smelter site until 1990. The worst pollution was found at the site and in the immediate vicinity. About 100 parcels were cleaned up between 1999 and 2007 by the state, the Everett Housing Authority and the city of Everett.

Pollution from the smelter in an industrial area along the Snohomish River is still being studied, and it’s hoped that section can be cleaned up in three to five years, officials say.

The state in 2009 received $34 million in a settlement from Grupo Mexico, a mining company based in Mexico City that acquired Asarco.

The money is part of a larger $188 million settlement to repair environmental damage here and in other parts of the state, including Tacoma.

In Everett, an area larger than a square mile was contaminated by the smoke. Officials knew more parcels needed cleanup, but there was no money to do it until now, they said. The plan is to clean up the more contaminated properties first, the least polluted ones last.

The affected area includes two major Everett parks, Legion and Wiggums Hollow. The state began testing soil in the parks after Thanksgiving and expects to have results early in the coming year.

“We don’t anticipate finding a lot but we don’t know for sure until we look,” Bommarito said.

Parks are considered the second priority for cleanup, after residential yards, she said. If any cleanup and restoration is done in the parks, it likely would be in the most heavily used areas.

Contamination in most of the yards is low, according to the state. At this level, only direct prolonged exposure over a period of years could lead to health problems, but those problems could be severe — several types of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes or nerve damage, according to the state Department of Health.

The dirt would have to be ingested directly and consistently for years, such as by working in the soil and then using hands to eat without washing; children playing in the dirt and then putting their hands in their mouths, or through breathing the dust, officials said.

No reported illnesses have been directly linked to contaminants from the smelter, according to the Snohomish Health District.

The properties currently being cleaned up were all tested last year for pollution levels, which determined the order of the cleanup and the depth of the excavation. The deepest that crews have had to dig into yards has been two feet, Bommarito said.

Wilkinson said that when he bought the home in 2008 he was told a smelter had operated nearby in the 20th century but was not told that pollution had been found in the area.

He found out at a public meeting on the cleanup earlier this year that his yard was in the contamination area.

“It was an unpleasant surprise,” he said.

When the first cleanups took place the in 1990s, the state did enough sampling to know the geographical extent of the pollution but hadn’t done testing on individual parcels.

“What we told people was that if your property is in the area, to assume it’s contaminated and take these precautions,” Bommarito said.

She said the law requires full disclosure of whatever is known about a property when it is sold.

“We rely on people and on the real-estate community to take that responsibility seriously and to let people know,” she said.

Wilkinson, 43, often worked in his yard after moving into the home. He was told by state officials that as long as he washed his hands afterward he would be OK.

The cleanup work and restoration took about two weeks earlier this month. His property was fenced off — crews created a gate and a gap in the fence for him to come and go, he said.

The biggest inconvenience, he said, was having to park on the street during the work. In most cases, crews don’t dig underneath driveways or walkways, but Wilkinson’s driveway was in poor condition and was replaced, he said.

Crews were very responsive to his requests, he said, such as which plants to save.

“From my perspective it made this experience a lot less traumatic that it may well have been,” he said. “I’m glad they got it done before the end of the year, to start the new year fresh.”

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

Learn more

For more information on the Asarco smelter cleanup process, go to http://tinyurl.com/AsarcoDOE or call 425-530-5169.

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