Toxic harvest

In Georgetown, hazardous chemicals are a matter of heaven and earth.

IF IN FACT DANGEROUS chemicals have been allowed to spread unchecked through the rich loam of venerable Georgetown, Tim O'Brien will not be surprised. "We're nobodies," says the graying, 63-year-old community activist, straightening his trademark derby hat as he polishes off a milkshake at Kettels eatery on Fourth Avenue South. "The law doesn't mean anything in the South End."

A retired schoolteacher and community council member, O'Brien and his neighbors have long heard rumors about a two-acre Georgetown hazardous waste site that dates to the 1970s. Locals could only guess what decades of chemical storage and shipments at the fenced-off South Lucille Street facility might have done to the community's water, air, and soil. But in May some more official information arrived in O'Brien's mailbox, a letter from Philip Services. In it the financially and legally troubled multinational corporation and the latest owner of the toxic waste site announced it would no longer process cyanide in the middle of Georgetown.

Say what? O'Brien thought. Cyanide? The one-whiff-and-you're-dead stuff? Who the hell knew?

The notice said Philip would no longer treat commercial cyanide wastes at the site, which operates under the name Burlington Environmental. Philip was also deactivating two cyanide storage tanks. Still, the facility, a gray, metal-clad warehouse/office surrounded by two-story treatment tanks and stacks of black barrels, will continue to receive cyanide—highly toxic when inhaled or absorbed— for out-of-state transfer and disposal.

O'Brien shook his head. Another sneak attack on G-town revealed. But nothing new for the depressed industrial community snuggled peninsula-like between I-5, the Duwamish River, and Boeing Field. Annexed by Seattle in 1910, Georgetown today is often a place to speed through or buzz over en route to somewhere else. It has surrendered architecturally to freeway ramp designers and the economics that have deadened its storefronts on Airport Way South. The hulking landmark Rainier ice house and the old city hall await revival, while community leaders struggle with airport noise, runway expansion, and societal dilemmas such as the recent unannounced arrival of a halfway house for sex offenders.

Although there are new reasons for optimism—crime is down and low rents have spawned a growing artist's colony—the one traditional source of pride century-old Georgetown can point to is the lush gardens that garland its modest homes. They're why the Georgetown Garden Club's annual tour draws overflow admirers and its flower-laden floats are Seafair community parade favorites (in tandem with the auxiliary Lawn Mower Drill Team). Marveling at the local crop of neon bouquets, thickly woven vines, and zucchini big as children, old timers will tell you it's something in the dirt.

The mailing also included information that gave Georgetown's gardeners cause for concern. "Philip," the bureaucratic notice said, "has completed two phases of remedial investigation and the remedial investigation reports have been approved by EPA." In plain English: Philip was seeking more time to clean up the Lucille site, where industrial and household chemical wastes are recycled or distilled and processed for out-of-state disposal.

As the curious O'Brien and others would soon learn from their nosy inquiries, federally required soil tests had determined that chemicals—most likely from the Philip treatment site—had radiated into Georgetown's residential groundwater. While officials had dithered over cleanup at the site, carcinogens and other toxic chemical elements had over the years migrated through sewer pipes and leeched into a neighborhood aquifer, spreading beneath homes blocks away.

Had ethyl benzene, one of the leaking carcinogenic health hazards, become Georgetown's homestyle Miracle-Gro? Community Council leader Chris Chinn fired off a letter to the US Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the site, asking for a public hearing. He edgily noted that the Philip property is 400 feet from a local playfield and 600 feet from a kiddies' park. What did that mean?

Or, as residents asked after they showed up for the public hearing earlier this month, are our dinner salads killing us? Amid fearful talk of birth defects and relatives or family pets who seemed to have died of strange ailments, the crowd departed with their lettuce still in doubt. Philip and government representatives shed little light and couldn't agree on the amounts or effects of the contamination. They said the toxic chemicals hadn't invaded the drinking water, but were indeed in the soil. They urged calm, promising further tests.

"PAR FOR THE Georgetown course," says O'Brien. "Fact is, though, that site has been a community hazard for decades, and the government knew it."

In 1980, the Lucille facility—then owned by Chemical Processors Inc. (ChemPro)—was pronounced by city and US officials "a dangerous situation" where incompatible toxic and flammable wastes were stored illegally. Though repeatedly warned, ChemPro failed to take proper action and, along with its two biggest generators of chemical wastes—Boeing and Paccar—was hauled into US court. All were charged, according to a copy of the civil complaint, with storing chemicals "in haphazard and overcrowded fashion and in leaking, damaged, open, or deteriorating containers, threatening fire, explosion, the release of highly poisonous gas, and long-term air and soil contamination." All denied the allegations.

ChemPro struggled to clean the site, then found another solution: Sell. Or attempt to. The US agreed in a 1983 consent order to allow takeover of the site by another chemical waste firm. The sale fell through but bought ChemPro time. Three years later ChemPro was back in court asking for more time to fulfill its agreement. About that time, in 1986, ChemPro sold to Seattle developer Dave Sabey, who in 1988 brought in a partner, Burlington Environmental. Within a few years, they discovered that those "haphazard" chemicals from the past were on the move, showing up in the sewers and at off-site groundwater testing wells.

Recounting the findings in a 1993 report, Burlington identified "11 volatile organic compounds" in the Georgetown ecosystem. Burlington's "interpretation" was that the contamination came from the Preservative Paint operation across the street—there is also a sugar refinery next door—and that the source was underground storage tanks removed seven years earlier. Burlington scientists decided the contaminated sewers "are probably not" affecting the community's shallow groundwater.

By 1994, Sabey and Burlington solved the contamination problem, corporately at least, by selling their statewide assets and liabilities to Philip for $75 million (cutting their original asking price by $50 million). As the new owner, Philip naturally asked the US for more time to comply with corrective measures required under its permit. Philip is now aiming for a 2002 deadline.

Of course, Philip also could sell the site—and the problem. The company's recent financial woes increase the likelihood of that possibility. The Canada-based scrap-metals and waste-recovery giant declared bankruptcy after posting a $1.6 billion loss in 1998. It also faces legal problems. According to a July 20, 2000, filing by Philip with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, the SEC and its Canadian counterpart are investigating Philip for issuing an allegedly false financial prospectus to investors.

The company, Washington's largest hazardous waste processor, faces expensive cleanups elsewhere as well, including a contaminated landfill in Pasco (now a US Superfund site wherein all users share the cleanup costs). Recovering some costs, Burlington won a $7.2 million settlement from the Pasco site insurer. But according to statements made in a 1997 class-action lawsuit brought by Philip stockholders, as reported in Canada's National Post, the cash-strapped company pocketed the money instead of spending it on cleanup. (Philip is vigorously defending itself against the stockholders' claims.)

Philip, which is now reorganizing its operations, has so far said it plans to set things right at the Georgetown facility— a site needed to handle the waste and byproducts of numerous local businesses. In the meantime, inspectors—including researchers from the Centers for Disease Control—plan more studies on the effects of Georgetown's unpleasant ecology.

To O'Brien, "It's back to square one." He lays a stack of documents on the table and dons his specs to read from a list of dangerous chemicals found in the subterranean screenings. He then scans a list of on-site chemicals mentioned in the 1980 lawsuit: benzene, trichloroethylene, carbon tetrachloride. Same threat, but now spreading underfoot.

"You know," O'Brien says, "Georgetown gets dumped on so much it's hard to keep up. This time it may be life or death."

 
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