OLYMPIA — Residents of Everett’s Delta neighborhood are frustrated, to put it nicely, with the protracted pace and unclear path of the state in ridding their yards of toxin-laden soils, an unwanted inheritance from a once mighty smelter.
Five of them traveled to the Capitol Monday to talk it out with Department of Ecology officials responsible for setting the schedule of cleanup and three lawmakers with the cachet to make things happen. A top city executive was on hand as well.
It was high noon and the sun shone bright, but not inside the conference room where they gathered around a long rectangular table in the basement of the House building.
As participants sat down, the kindling was in place for polite introductions to explode into a fiery exchange of adjectives, verbs and nouns one cannot take back once expressed.
It was 40 unrehearsed minutes of civility, a demonstration of artful conversation and squeaky wheel democracy in which the voices of a few individuals are louder than those of professional influence peddlers deployed in the Capitol every day.
Each resident shared how the legacy of contamination from the Asarco smelter site affects their lives, threatens the health of their children and leaves them unable to move because who would pay their asking price for a parcel of pollution.
They came seeking a clearer idea of when to expect the state to be working in their neighborhood. There’s concern because money is disappearing.
The smelter operated from 1894 to 1912 near the intersection of North Broadway and E. Marine View Drive. The contaminants weren’t discovered until 1990.
When Asarco filed bankruptcy, the state obtained a $188 million settlement in 2008 for remediation of its messes in the Puget Sound. The deal directed $34 million to dealing with damage caused by the Everett site.
To date, 348 properties in the city have been cleaned up. Another 148 await action with only enough money left to do about 20 more. Settlement dollars are expected to run out this year unless replenished.
Gov. Jay Inslee is seeking $3.2 million in the next two-year capital budget, enough for about 40 homes. As envisioned, money would be spent first in the Northwest neighborhood and then in Delta.
Ecology officials estimate they’ll need another $14 million between 2021 and 2029 to get to the rest, which may include properties of those seated across the table from them.
“That’s a really long time for neighbors to worry about the health of their children,” said Mary Fosse, chairwoman of the Delta Neighborhood Association. “Something urgently needs to be done.”
James Pendowski, manager of the agency’s toxics cleanup program, agreed to draw up a timeline to get the chore done in six years and estimated what that would require in terms of additional money and staff. He also said he would explore ways to allow homeowners to handle some cleanup situations on their own as residents requested.
Lawmakers will need to decide whether to direct more of the $17.2 million to the Department of Ecology sooner. Tharinger is critical on that front as he will write the capital budget in the House.
“There may be some opportunity,” he said. “I can’t guarantee that.”
Those words are why Fosse was smiling afterward.
“I think we clarified that time is of the essence. I think they got the point,” she said, adding it helps knowing the city has the neighborhood’s back in this pursuit. “We’re pretty thrilled. I have a lot of faith something is going to come of this.”
Cydney Gillis, owner of a home where high levels of arsenic have been measured, shared the reaction.
“We were able to ask questions and get answers,” she said. “Just getting to this point is positive and makes me feel like things are moving. It’s a relief.”
While Sterling Jones said he did “feel a little more confident” he’s still pretty much unable to sell and move.
“I can’t turn this conversation into a promise to a buyer,” he said. “What we need now are believable dates.”
Bob Bolerjack, executive director for governmental affairs for the city of Everett, made clear in the meeting that securing funding is the city’s top request for the capital budget. He left more optimistic than when he entered.
“I really think we needed to tell the human story,” he said. “I was really heartened that Rep. Tharinger was listening hard and cares about these neighbors.”
Monday was Day 15 of the 105-day session. There’s plenty of time for residents from around the state and lobbyists in the Capitol to bend Tharinger’s ear in a different direction.
Fosse is emboldened, not deterred.
“We know it’s a bit of a waiting game for now, but we are very optimistic,” she said. “Having your elected officials and city actually listen and seek out solutions to our concerns is exactly how government should work.”