EVERETT — Notices along Powder Mill Creek offer a warning:
“CREEK CLEAN UP IN PROGRESS. NO WADING. NO DRINKING.”
For years, the bulletins have been some of the few public signs of the industrial toxins migrating from what’s just upstream: the Boeing Co.’s Everett plant.
The manufacturing powerhouse, in operation since the late 1960s, is the source of a plume of contaminated groundwater that extends roughly 2,800 feet from the head of a steep canyon, northward into the creek, until about a mile from where the small waterway empties into Puget Sound.
The tainted water, which comes from beneath an asphalt-lined stormwater basin on the northern reaches of Boeing’s property, is laden with Trichloroethylene.
TCE is a solvent that’s used to degrease metal parts during the manufacturing process — and a known carcinogen to humans.
Last year, it was detected in the gulch groundwater at a concentration more than 1,000 times the state limit.
First found in creek water in the gulch in the late 1990s, TCE is one of many pollutants that has seeped into the soil and groundwater beneath Boeing’s property during the past 50 years, state records show.
The aerospace giant will spend millions of dollars and decades cleaning up the mess under a state-mandated plan that’s now in draft form.
“Boeing is in the final stages of environmental cleanup at our Everett site, under a draft set of studies, plans and orders and other documents available for public comment from the Washington Department of Ecology,” the company said in a written statement. “We are committed to a comprehensive cleanup of the Powder Mill Gulch area of Everett and have made considerable progress in reducing groundwater contamination through a variety of interim action cleanup activities. Our cleanup plans now available for comment build on these efforts.”
“Contamination beneath the site does not pose a risk to site employees or visitors,” a company spokesperson said. “Boeing operations are not expected to be affected by the cleanup activities.”
The company has for years disputed some of the Ecology Department’s conclusions about what standards must be met at the plant for the job to be deemed complete, records show.
Many of those conflicts have been resolved as the plan has taken shape. But two major sticking points remain, including the cleanup criteria the state has selected for the tainted groundwater.
The company denies there is any disagreement.
“Boeing and Ecology agree on the cleanup approach for the Everett facility and Powder Mill Gulch, and Boeing is pleased to move into the main cleanup phase of the project,” the company spokesperson said.
Boeing has taken some steps to limit the amount of contaminated water flowing from its property; however, testing shows TCE levels within the plume still remain “several orders of magnitude” over Ecology’s groundwater cleanup threshold, the plan says.
That maximum criteria is 0.38 micrograms per liter.
In February 2020, the highest TCE concentration measured within the plume was 480 micrograms per liter.
TCE levels were observed as high as 31,000 micrograms per liter in 2005, according to cleanup documents.
In 2003, the chemical was discovered in the underlying Esperance Sand aquifer, which begins 60 to 70 feet below the surface of the Boeing property.
Though the creek is not a source of drinking water, the TCE levels pose a danger to aquatic plants and animals and could put people or other animals that come in contact with the creek at risk, according to the cleanup documents.
A litany of other contaminants have been discovered at the roughly 1,000-acre Boeing site, which stretches from the northeast corner of Paine Field, north of Highway 526 and toward Mukilteo. The list includes fuels such as oil and gasoline, lead, hydraulic jet fluid, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
The chemicals came from a range of manufacturing operations by way of leaking underground storage tanks and pipes, spills, stormwater discharges and other “releases,” according to the cleanup documents.
“The data from this site’s remedial investigation indicated that the soil and groundwater contamination came from historic practices and incidents,” Ecology said in a written statement. “Today’s dangerous waste requirements specifically aim to prevent such releases.”
A former gun club, which occupied part of the site decades ago, is also considered a source of lead and other metals; however, much of the contaminated sediment remaining there will be addressed in a separate cleanup plan that has not yet been written.
Since the 1980s, the company has held a permit that allows it to store dangerous waste on-site for up to 90 days under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. That permit is now up for renewal, and the public can comment on that application, too.
Ecology regularly inspects the plant to confirm that contaminants are being properly handled, stored and disposed of.
Boeing “no longer uses TCE as a widespread cleaning solvent as it did in the past,” the department said. Small quantities of the chemical are still used in one of its labs, according to Ecology.
The enforcement order
Over the past two decades, Boeing has studied the extent of the contamination and assessed cleanup options, as required under the state’s environmental cleanup law, the Model Toxics Control Act.
Boeing told the state last fall that it would not sign an “agreed order” with the Ecology department stipulating cleanup requirements for the vast majority of the site, records show.
Now the agency is poised to issue an enforcement order to compel the company to finish the job. A draft of that order, too, was recently released.
Unlike the typical “agreed” cleanup orders that the department signs with polluters, the “enforcement order” could be appealed by Boeing in superior court if it becomes final, said Ecology spokesman Larry Altose.
Some of the same toxins found at the Everett plant have been found at other Boeing sites in Washington.
Ecology recently released a feasibility study outlining cleanup options for Boeing’s Auburn parts plant, where TCE has also tainted the groundwater.
An environmental group sued the company in 2018, alleging that it poisoned the Duwamish River by releasing contaminated stormwater runoff from its Military Delivery Center in Tukwila.
Under a February 2020 consent decree, Boeing committed to address the pollution by installing improved stormwater treatment facilities, expanding monitoring efforts and taking other steps. The settlement, with Puget Soundkeeper and Waste Action Project, also stipulated that Boeing contribute $750,000 to a King County project to create more salmon habitat.
The most expensive and time-consuming part of the Everett cleanup plan involves a process known as bioremediation, in which the company will inject nutrients into the soil to help natural bacteria break down the TCE. Under the proposal, Boeing would invest heavily in improvements to an existing system that pumps out contaminated groundwater, treats it and releases it.
The gulch groundwater cleanup is likely to take 30 to 40 years, possibly longer, said Paul Bianco, Ecology’s site manager for the Boeing Everett plant.
In some areas of the plant, contaminants would stay confined beneath buildings for years or decades until the pollutants could be removed without disrupting operations.
The company has told the Ecology Department that it cannot commit to specific dates by which it will accomplish all the work needed to rid those parts of the site of pollution, records show.
In the meantime, monitoring would assure that the pollutants aren’t spreading to the air or groundwater at levels that could be dangerous for people or the environment.
At more accessible parts of the site, polluted soils would be excavated until testing has proven that chemical concentrations have fallen below state cleanup levels. Most of that excavation work is expected to be done within a decade, Bianco said.
The excavated soil — depending on its contamination levels — would either be disposed of at a municipal waste landfill or at landfill licensed to accept dangerous waste, according to Ecology.
Boeing expects the “near-term cleanup work” to occur between 2022 and 2030, the company said in a draft checklist required under the state Environmental Policy Act.
Under a separate agreed order with the state, Boeing would also decontaminate a part of its Everett facility known as the Bomarc business park, off Airport Road on 94th Street SW.
The company has leased the underlying land from Snohomish County for decades and now subleases the building there to commercial tenants.
Boeing and Ecology have chosen to draft an agreed order for the Bomarc portion of the cleanup to allow for the building to be sold in the future, according to the department. In the event the company sells the property, it would still have access rights to complete the cleanup there, the draft order says.
The extent of the contamination
The “chemicals of concern” targeted by the proposed cleanup plan vary widely across Boeing’s property.
In some spots, pollutants have been found in the soil at concentrations more than 10 times their respective cleanup levels required by the Model Toxics Control Act.
A 2007 sample taken near an underground storage tank measured benzene, a component of petroleum products and a known carcinogen, 11 feet below ground surface at concentrations nearly 177 times the required cleanup level for that compound, according to a feasibility study.
Contaminants have also been found in vapor samples from soils beneath the concrete floors of some buildings.
TCE and an ozone-depleting refrigerant known as Freon 12 have been measured above screening levels in soils beneath the 777X spar assembly shop and the Bomarc business park, Bianco said. But inside those buildings, chemical concentrations in the air have never been detected in excess of cleanup levels, and future monitoring is planned to ensure the indoor air remains safe.
The full cost of the cleanup is not publicly known.
A 2018 supplementary feasibility study estimated that the groundwater cleanup would cost $11.7 million to $25.1 million.
Excavating or containing the contaminated soils across the site was expected to cost millions of dollars more, the first feasibility study shows.
But Bianco said those estimates are out of date. He deferred to the company for more accurate information.
Boeing declined to say what the cleanup is expected to cost. The spokesperson said the company is “committed to a comprehensive cleanup” and doesn’t “have anything else to add at this time.”
While Boeing and Ecology are now in accord on much of the proposal, records show that they at first disagreed on what work should be required. Topics of contention following the initial feasibility study included the preferred remedy for the contaminated groundwater plume and associated monitoring requirements, according to written correspondence that is now posted online with the cleanup documents.
Some of those kinks were worked out during a three-year period from 2016 to 2019, when the company and the state engaged in “informal,” then “formal,” dispute resolution.
But the company still takes issue with the agency’s proposed “point of compliance,” or the location on the Powder Mill Gulch site at which future sampling must show that TCE concentrations have fallen below the cleanup threshold, said Bianco, the Ecology Department’s Boeing Everett cleanup site manager.
Though actions taken by the company have reduced TCE concentrations through much of the plume, the contaminated groundwater continues to move north, beyond Seaway Boulevard and into the Boulevard Bluffs neighborhood. It reaches properties including two business centers and a vacant lot owned by the city of Everett.
Ecology has determined the groundwater cleanup level must be achieved at the Boeing property line at Seaway Boulevard.
Boeing, however, has contended that meeting the standard at a location farther from the source of the pollution is sufficient to ensure protection, Bianco said.
The magic number
Also at issue is the actual cleanup level, or the maximum TCE concentration that can be present at the point of compliance for the cleanup to be completed.
Ecology has said that the groundwater should contain no more than 0.38 micrograms of TCE per liter, which is considered the surface water quality standard for the contaminant.
TCE above that level has been detected in the creek from its headwaters on Boeing’s property to less than a half-mile from where the creek empties into Puget Sound.
The state agency set that threshold by considering laws and regulations that specify cleanup levels for TCE-contaminated media, such as soil or surface water. Ecology, as it typically does, chose the lowest of those cleanup levels, Bianco said in an email.
The drinking water standard for TCE is 4 micrograms per liter, or about 4 parts per billion. That equates to about a teaspoon in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, according to Ecology.
“We maintain that since the groundwater emerges from the ground and flows into the creek, the cleanup is ultimately protecting surface water,” Bianco said. “Therefore, Ecology does have the authority — and obligation — to apply the surface water quality cleanup levels.”
But Boeing has argued that Ecology cannot legally apply surface water quality standards to groundwater.
The company has asserted that its preferred groundwater cleanup levels “are conservative considering that, under existing and likely future site use conditions, there are no risks to human or ecological receptors.”
“For Powder Mill Gulch, Boeing also recognizes that to meet site cleanup standards, the cleanup levels for both surface water and groundwater must be met in their respective media, otherwise the groundwater remedial action will not be considered complete,” company Environmental Remediation Manager Katie Moxley told the state agency in a 2017 letter.
Dianne Riter, who lives near the cleanup site, said in an email to Ecology that she supports the more stringent cleanup standard in the gulch.
“The health of people, animals and the environment is too important to decrease cleanup standards as Boeing has requested,” wrote Riter, the sole resident who submitted a comment on the plan as of Friday afternoon. “For too many years, these hazardous substances have been in our neighborhood and likely leaching out into Port Gardner Bay and it’s critical that they be cleaned up in a complete manner.”
TCE was one of the first chemicals to be targeted for a ban after Congress passed the revised Toxic Substances Control Act in 2016, but federal rules proposed by the EPA in President Barack Obama’s final days were never implemented.
The EPA published a final risk assessment for TCE in November, determining that the chemical presented an “unreasonable risk” to people in nearly all uses, including as a solvent used in degreasing. Environmental groups have criticized the assessment for understating the dangers, particularly when it comes to potential fetal heart defects.
The National Cancer Institute considers TCE a “cancer-causing substance.”
A fact sheet published by the EPA in March 2016 says that TCE can also affect fetus development, irritate skin and the respiratory system and cause light-headedness, drowsiness and headaches.
“Repeated exposure to TCE has been associated with effects in the liver, kidneys, immune system, and central nervous system,” the fact sheet says.
The public can be exposed to TCE by breathing contaminated air or drinking contaminated water. People who work with the chemical can also absorb it through their skin, according to the cancer institute.
There are no water supply wells near the groundwater plume. One water well was found a half mile from the plume, but according to the city of Everett, the well is no longer in use, the cleanup plan says.
Surveys conducted by the Tulalip Tribes in 2013 reported that the lower reaches of Powder Mill Creek provide habitat for juvenile coho and chum salmon, according to cleanup documents. Cutthroat trout were also found there.
Culverts at Mukilteo Boulevard and other natural and man-made barriers now prevent salmon and other anadromous fish species from migrating or spawning in the contaminated portion of the creek. However, if those obstacles were removed, the southern stretch of the creek could be used by fish, the cleanup plan says.
The action taken
In the 2000s, the company agreed to take several measures to reduce the amount of polluted water reaching the creek after elevated PCB concentrations were discovered there. A detention basin outlet control structure was built, and PCB-contaminated sediment was removed from the headwaters of the creek.
The company also installed a system that involved heating the TCE source area to convert the liquid solvent into vapors, which were then captured and recovered.
In 2011, the company agreed to add 12 groundwater extraction wells to remove contaminants.
Under the cleanup proposal, the company would build onto that system. The updated version will have more wells and return treated water into the ground, instead of the creek, to flush more pollution toward the extraction wells.
The company has also made other efforts to remove soil elsewhere on the property that contains contaminants such as arsenic and lead.
Arsenic exceeds cleanup levels in groundwater at the site; however, Ecology suspects the element occurs naturally there, as it does elsewhere in Washington’s environment.
Boeing could pay if it doesn’t comply with the cleanup plans.
Under state law, the state attorney general may initiate legal action to compel the company to complete the cleanup work or recover any costs spent by Ecology to investigate or remediate the site, the proposed cleanup orders say.
The company would be liable for up to three times the amount of money spent by the state, plus civil penalties up to $25,000 a day for each day it refuses to comply.
The cleanup documents are available for review online at ecology.wa.gov.
Ecology will respond to comments and questions when the comment period ends, said Altose, the department spokesman.
If the comments result in significant changes to the plan, the cleanup documents will be revised and posted again for the public to review.
Herald reporter Zachariah Bryan contributed to this story.