EVERETT — An Everett fuel company has continuously contaminated a local wetland and violated related state law, according to a new lawsuit.
An inspection of Nelson Petroleum’s property on 7th Avenue SE in February found an “egregious amount of contaminates” inside the stormwater drainage system, according to city documents obtained by The Daily Herald. Nearly all of the stormwater infrastructure on the property was reportedly full of a pink liquid smelling of petroleum, and all of the oil-water separators on the property off Everett Mall Way were in need of maintenance.
Over the years, the company had also exceeded state limits on allowable zinc discharges by nearly 500%, according to federal reports.
For more than half a century, Nelson Petroleum has served Snohomish County, providing fuel in bulk to various industries. In the 1960s and 1970s, it began distributing Chevron products in north county communities, according to the company website. In 1982, the company, started by Jim Nelson, bought a plant in Everett. Soon after, his son, Mark Nelson, got on board.
In the 1990s, the company expanded into Skagit County. And in 2000, it reportedly bought Dennis Petroleum in Everett, doubling the size of the company and moving its headquarters to 80th Street SW in south Everett, according to the company website.
State permits require oil discharges to not exceed certain limits for copper, zinc and turbidity, among other things, noted the lawsuit filed last week in Snohomish County Superior Court, on behalf of the owner of an Everett Mall Way strip mall.
“The benchmarks were written into the permit to avoid water quality violations,” said Evan Dobrowski, maritime and industrial stormwater compliance and enforcement specialist at the state Department of Ecology. “We have a requirement to protect waters of the state.”
In the lawsuit, the owner of the strip mall, JKL Real Estate Investment, noted it couldn’t refinance its mortgage because of the contamination, leading to over $76,000 in additional costs.
Mark Nelson, now president of the company, declined to comment on the lawsuit. He directed a Herald reporter to the company’s attorney, but declined to share their contact information.
In 2014, Nelson Petroleum exceeded the cap for copper and zinc, according to a state inspection. Three years later, inspectors from Ecology followed up. They found the company’s Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan, untouched since 2010, was inadequate. And Nelson violated several conditions of its state permit, including failing to immediately clean up oil leaks and failing to implement corrective actions in response to the issues, the investigators found.
Nelson’s problems didn’t cease there, however, according to the lawsuit.
In the years since, the oil company reported continued failures to meet the state-required limits annual filings show. The company exceeded allowable zinc discharges by 227% in the first quarter of 2020, according to federal data. Later that year, that was up to almost 500%.
From late 2019 to summer 2021, Nelson Petroleum didn’t submit reports to the Environmental Protection Agency about its federal Clean Water Act compliance. Since then, it has been reporting discharges. Violations have been identified each time, according to the EPA.
In 2021, an environmental consulting firm found “soil staining” and “petroleum-like odor” in what is called a bioswale at the Twin Creeks Center strip mall at 500 SE Everett Mall Way, the recent lawsuit claims. The bioswale is a freshwater wetland.
Parts of the wetland contained petroleum hydrocarbons exceeding cleanup levels laid out in the state Model Toxic Controls Act, according to the complaint. Lab testing reportedly showed samples taken from the bioswale in January of this year resembled fresh diesel fuel.
Researchers have found the “introduction of petroleum hydrocarbons into a pristine environment immediately changes the nature of that environment.” They can “kill or inhibit” species, affecting an ecosystem.
“We have regulations that say the only thing that should be going down the drain is stormwater,” Dobrowski said.
In February, a City of Everett water inspector reached out to Nelson Petroleum about its issues complying with city stormwater regulations at its facility on 7th Avenue SE, just off Everett Mall Way. City staff got word that month about the reported heavy oil contamination to vegetation between 500 SE Everett Mall Way and 620 SE Everett Mall Way, according to the letter.
The stormwater system servicing Nelson’s 7th Avenue property discharges there, the inspector reported. The letter noted the previous owner of the property, Dennis Petroleum, also had issues with oil contamination there dating back to the early 1990s.
The February inspection noted the “egregious” contamination and pink oil-smelling liquid.
Everett city code states: “No person shall throw, drain, or otherwise discharge, cause or allow others under its control to throw, drain or otherwise discharge into the storm drainage system or any receiving waters any materials other than stormwater.”
The inspector’s letter noted several steps the facility needed to take to comply with that code, including scheduling maintenance of the stormwater system, on-site spill response materials and training, and connecting catch basins to the sanitary sewer system to contain pollutants. These steps needed to be taken within 30 days, the city warned.
In March, Nelson’s emergency coordinator responded, claiming it was already following some of the steps the city requested. The manager also noted compliance with state Ecology guidelines, so “we are not clear on the need for a sanitary sewer hookup.”
The next day, the city inspector emailed the manager. There had been another leak, the email said. In a follow-up, the inspector wrote that the city of Everett’s more stringent regulations supersede state requirements.
The catch basins remained disconnected from the sewer system, the lawsuit claims.
In late April, a city inspector reportedly found that a manual shut-off valve to close the stormwater line in case of a spill was not connected properly, and “therefore closing the valve will not contain a spill or other catastrophic event.”