Bryan Lust, site manager for Kimberly-Clark, walks across the 67-acre former site of the company’s Everett mill on Thursday, March 23. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Stalled cleanup of former mill site stalls development, sale

EVERETT — A dispute over cleanup plans at Kimberly-Clark’s former mill site is merely the latest chapter in the Everett waterfront’s evolution from its milltown origins.

The problems are buried along Port Gardner’s shore, where smokestacks once stood — industrial jewels in the city’s working-class crown.

From the former Weyerhaeuser mill at the Port of Everett’s South Terminal to the old Bay Wood Products mill site near the mouth of the Snohomish River, 11 properties are undergoing or are earmarked for environmental cleanup. They comprise nearly half of the acreage of the city’s industrial waterfront. That doesn’t even include the hundreds of parcels contaminated by a long-gone smelter or the toxic hangover along the river where millions of discarded tires burned uncontrolled for five months in the 1980s.

Past pollution can be prologue, though. After years of cleanup by the city, new houses are rising on the site of the tire inferno.

Today, Kimberly Clark, a paper-products corporation, and the city of Everett are fighting over whether to remove or pave over the concrete debris covering much of the 66 acres since the mill was closed in 2012 and subsequently demolished. The city sued Kimberly-Clark in 2014, demanding it haul away the debris. Both sides agreed to put the lawsuit on hold, while the company, which prefers paving, tries to sell the land.

A cargo-handling company, North American Stevedoring, wants to bring 100 steady jobs to the former mill site. Last month, it announced a deal with Kimberly-Clark to lease about 20 acres of the property, where it plans to build cold storage and a warehouse. Eventually, the company wants to move its headquarters here from Seattle.

At least twice since knocking down the mill, Kimberly-Clark has been close to selling the land, only to see the deals unravel, in part because of concerns over the cleanup costs.

Pollution can add considerable cost and time to putting land back to productive use. Construction of Naval Station Everett in the late 1980s and 1990s was halted several times to address objections from environmental groups and the Tulalip Tribes. In the end, the equivalent of a small mountain of contaminated sediment was dredged, removed, dumped and capped with clean soil. The Tulalips also received a financial settlement.

The Port of Everett continues to clean former industrial land as it develops housing, retail shops and commercial offices along Port Gardner Bay. And this year, polluted soil is scheduled to be removed around 11 homes in Everett’s Delta neighborhood, a toxic forget-me-not from the Asarco smelter, which closed more than a century ago.

In March, the city and Kimberly-Clark resumed argument over the debris in the state-run cleanup process. State officials have not determined which side is right. However, they do say that dumping the debris — enough to bury a football field more than 50 feet deep — on the site has slowed cleaning up the land.

North American Stevedoring is not concerned about the legal fight, said Steve Abernathy, a vice president with the Seattle-based company.

The cargo-handling company hopes to open cold storage and other freight operations on about 20 acres of the former mill site by as soon as 2018.

“We know what we’re getting into,” Abernathy said. “The only thing that would delay us would be if it takes a long time” to decide what to do with the debris: remove it or bury it on site.

North American Stevedoring is fine with either decision, he said.

The debris should not affect the company’s development plans, which include adding low-rise buildings on the land. The site would be operated by a subsidiary, Everett Cold Storage & Terminal.

Freight companies and shipping lines have already contacted the company about future work, he said. “It’s our goal to support jobs that are very steady” and mostly full time.

Heavy metal

In the late 1800s, lumber mills, shipbuilders and other industrial companies flocked to Everett’s waterfront. They brought jobs and money that fueled Everett’s growth. They also left a legacy of toxic chemicals — heavy metals, petroleum and other industrial byproducts. Lingering pollution can be a red flag for land developers. Cleaning it up can take years, cost huge sums and deliver unwelcome surprises along the way.

Kimberly-Clark and the state Department of Ecology have agreed to a cleanup plan covering 52 acres of the mill site and some area uncovered at low tide. The adjacent East Waterway is being cleaned up in a separate process.

The site is still being tested to determine the extent and type of contamination. After that is finished, Ecology will study the options for cleaning up the former mill. “There are a number of alternatives, ranging from ‘do nothing’ all the way up to ‘dig everything up,’ and it could be anything in between,” said Barry Rogowski, a manager with Ecology’s toxic cleanup program.

Since the mill closed, Kimberly-Clark’s contractor Aspect Consulting has drilled about 60 monitoring wells on the mill site to test groundwater for contamination.

Demolishing the mill has complicated the cleanup process. As buildings and other construction came down, concrete debris was spread across much of the property. The negotiated cleanup plan did not anticipate the debris. More testing and monitoring is now required, dragging out the process, Rogowski said.

“Some of those things may not have been properly done, leading to possible contamination,” he said. “That’s what we’re in the middle of right now.”

The city of Everett sued Kimberly-Clark over the debris in 2014, claiming the crushed material could contaminate groundwater.

The test wells have shown higher pH levels, especially around former mill buildings. The pH level is related to the presence of potentially corrosive metals and other toxic chemicals.

The spike in pH levels was noted through much of the eastern half of the site, including where the tissue mill, pulp mill, log pond and boilers used to be, said Andy Kallus, a toxicologist with Ecology’s Cleanup Program.

The recorded levels were well above the state standard for groundwater in some places. That has led to increased concentration of some metals in the groundwater, including arsenic, copper, mercury, and nickel, he said.

The metal concentrations are up to five times the state cleanup level in some parts of the site, Kallus said.

Steve Germiat, the site manager for Aspect Consulting, said the metals in the water most likely came from the soil, not the crushed debris on the site.

The data from the monitoring wells show those high pH levels have decreased over the years.

“That’s the way cement behaves,” Germiat said.

Germiat said he believed the eventual cleanup plan will include some kind of long-term monitoring requirement on the site.

Toxic time

Kimberly-Clark’s attorney, Brian Knox of K&L Gates, recently sent a letter to Ecology stating that the company took measures to ensure that concrete that had been contaminated with mill residue, paint or other chemicals was filtered out of the debris covering much of the site.

The letter was in response to the city of Everett’s request a few days earlier to Ecology, asking the department to immediately order the debris removed to prevent further groundwater contamination.

Knox’s response pointed out that it hasn’t seen any evidence that mill contaminants are part of the debris, and using concrete as fill is an accepted industry practice.

In the letter, Knox reiterated Kimberly-Clark’s position that all of its actions have been consistent with its permit requirements and the agreed cleanup process. Removing and replacing the crushed concrete with topsoil, which Everett wants, also would involve an estimated 13,000 truck trips through downtown Everett, which might have more acute pollution effects than letting the debris remain where it is.

The company and Ecology also point out there is no evidence of metals or other contaminants moving into the East Waterway or Puget Sound.

“That’s really the issue: Will the material migrate to the shoreline?” Germiat said. “We’ve actually sampled the beach as well, we’ve sampled seeps three times now, in very shallow water.”

Some sulfides have been detected on the site, and are being evaluated along with the rest of the samples, he said.

Kimberly-Clark is now proposing a plan to Ecology that it believes will address the groundwater problems and it hopes the city will find acceptable.

The plan would be to pave over that portion of the site that it wants to lease to North American Stevedoring and cover much of the rest with a flexible and impermeable membrane to keep stormwater from flowing through the concrete to reach the water table.

In a few locations where the concrete debris is already in contact with the groundwater, the company would remove the crushed material.

“We know there’s an area of about three to four acres in the area of what used to be the old log pond,” Germiat said.

The company plans to investigate other locations in the center and on the east end of the site where test wells indicate higher pH levels to see if the material should be removed from those locations too, Germiat said.

Testing from wells near the shoreline has shown lower pH levels.

Ecology’s Rogowski said tests show there’s contamination, but not enough to justify emergency action. “I feel like we have time to deal with the situation.”

Kimberly-Clark spokesman Bob Brand said that it will take a couple of weeks before a formal proposal can be submitted to Ecology and the work can start.

“We hope once the city understands that we’re trying to solve their concern, they’d be as pleased with the solution as we are,” Brand said.

The company and Ecology expect by year’s end to agree on a draft cleanup plan, which will then go out for public review and comment before it is approved.

No one can say now exactly how long or how much it will cost to clean the site. While that creates uncertainty when selling land, it is not a deal-breaker, real estate broker David Speers said. “It’s not that big of an impediment to redevelopment.

“Most people (and companies) around here expect some environmental issue” when buying former industrial land, he said.

Speers, a vice president with Kidder Mathews, is marketing the former mill site for Kimberly-Clark.

If a prospective buyer hires a good environmental firm to study a property’s contamination before purchasing it, there likely won’t be any surprises, he said. “You have to investigate” before purchasing.

Any pollution that is found likely can be dealt with, he said.

While buyers might not be frightened by pollution, the legal dispute between the city and Kimberly-Clark has had a “damping effect” with potential buyers, said Brand, the corporation’s spokesman.

Cautious approach

The Port of Everett is in talks with Kimberly-Clark to buy the rest of mill site not occupied by North American Stevedoring, the port’s chief executive Les Reardanz said.

Brand declined to say how serious the talks are. The corporation continues to market the land and will consider “any serious or significant offer” from the port or any would-be buyer, he said.

The port has spent more than a decade and millions of dollars cleaning up former industrial sites on the city’s waterfront. Unlike private property owners with polluted land, the port gets some money from the state for cleanup. It also puts tax dollars it collects and money from port operations toward environmental remediation.

Lingering contamination complicates land acquisition, even for buyers with extensive environmental experience such as the port, Reardanz said. Uncertainty about the extent of pollution can even make it harder to get financing for a land purchase.

The port is taking a more cautious approach than North American Stevedoring at the mill site, he said. “They’re taking a different risk assessment toward it than I felt comfortable with.”

The state identifies contaminated properties and approves cleanup plans. But current owners are responsible for the cleanup. Sometimes the state identifies past owners or users who contributed to the pollution. Still, it is up to the current owner to wrangle these past parties into chipping in.

Not surprisingly, that can be a difficult task. Sometimes a company no longer exists. Or it balks at paying when it followed the rules at the time.

Sometimes lingering pollution is not discovered until decades after it was created. In 1990, arsenic trioxide, a poisonous byproduct of smelting, was discovered in soil in Everett’s north end. The toxic material was from the Everett Smelter, which was shut down in 1912 and dismantled the following year. The smelter’s owner, Asarco, sold the last of the property in 1936. In the late 1930s and 1940s, housing developers turned the area into residential land.

Ecology found arsenic, lead and other toxic chemicals in the yards around hundreds of homes and in three public parks. The state is overseeing the cleanup process, which started in 1999 and is about halfway finished.

Despite the pricetag, cleaning up dirty land is worth it, said Allan Giffen, director of Everett’s planning department.

Everett has spent more than $20 million cleaning up the Riverfront property, where home builders plan to put up 425 houses along the Snohomish River.

The city continues to monitor for leftover pollution at the site, including residue from Everett’s tire fire, which burned for months in late 1984 and early 1985.

“It’s better than just fencing it off and living with blighted land. That doesn’t do much for our city or the economy,” Giffen said.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole @heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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