AFTER 25 YEARS as both the center of South Park's economy and a contaminator of its environment, Long Painting Co. is leaving town. Company officials at the Northwest's largest industrial painting company, grown weary of government inspectors and complaints from nearby residents, have quietly told City Hall that they're closing Long's 10th Avenue South yard. The painting and sandblasting operation will move next year to an industrial site in Kent.
That stunning decision comes just weeks after residents of another toxic Seattle neighborhood, Georgetown, cheered news that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was fining that community's major polluter, hazardous-waste giant Philip Services Corp., $1 million for prolonged environmental damage.
Community activist Tim O'Brian, who has been a leader in the years-long efforts to clean up both South Park and Georgetown, says the actions are victories of sorts for the two beleaguered neighborhoods. But O'Brian, who is now battling a new foe—bone cancer—urged caution before celebration.
"Talk's cheap," says the ever-skeptical O'Brian. "They've all lied to us so many times before. I'll believe it when Philip writes the check and the moving vans pull up in front of Long's."
While the possibility looms that Philip could pull out of Georgetown, too, the biggest immediate impact will be in South Park, says Charlie Cunniff of the pro- industry Environmental Coalition of South Seattle. He figures the city will lose an $80 million business and 300 jobs when Long moves. Cunniff, who favored the middle-ground approach that kept Long here, calls the outcome "a Pyrrhic victory for the environmental justice movement."
But Yolanda Sinde of the Community Coalition for Environmental Justice says you really don't win these things. "Is it a victory," she asks, "if they move to another community and pollute there?"
Long officials didn't respond for comment. But the company—whose projects include bridges, submarines, and Safeco Field—will be gone by next summer, says the city.
"The owners of the business have informed us that they are planning to move to Kent in the first half of next year," says Alan Justad, spokesperson for the department of Design, Construction and Land Use (DCLU). "They have asked to continue operations until that time."
In a recent settlement of city code violations, Long had agreed to complete an environmental impact review, obtain all the licenses and permits it has historically or recently lacked, and answer to its critics at public hearings.
City inspectors discovered that the company lacked 30 city permits required for construction and use of 11 structures at its 5-acre site. Long also lacked four Seattle Fire Department permits. The city action followed a Seattle Weekly report on the company's unpermitted operations and emissions ("South Park Stinks," Jan. 4, 2001).
Long has paid the city $30,000 to settle some claims and faces $575 daily fines and other penalties if it fails to obtain necessary permits within certain time periods.
Just what effect the moving date will have on the settlement and fines isn't yet known, the city says. "We plan to respond to their request by the end of August," says Justad. "Our settlement agreement assumed that they were staying and focused on the timely application for permits." Long continues to operate without some of them.
Nonetheless, residents of the low- income, heavily minority South Park community can at least say they've been heard, finally. To the often-deaf ears of regulators, they complained of Long's construction noises, on-site chemical spills, and gritty emissions; some said they had to wear gas or surgical masks while working in their yards. Over the last two decades, they've claimed that ventilation stacks and outdoor-painting operations at Long's compound have caused them ailments from headaches to respiratory complications.
Penny Cocking, one of the affected residents, says she'll be happy to live in a Long-free zone. "Most of the people who work there don't live here, and whatever economic impact there was is offset by the pollution they caused," she says.
OVER IN GEORGETOWN, meanwhile, Cathi Hendrickson is also cautiously celebrating. She lives around the corner—and at one time lived directly across—from the Philip toxic-waste storage and transfer plant. Spills there over the years contributed to an advancing chemical plume in Georgetown's groundwater and the emission of gasses in basement living areas such as hers.
"It's high time someone forced them to get down to the business of performing the actual cleanup they agreed to in 1993," says Hendrickson, who works for a Seattle law firm. "I don't know why the EPA waited so long, but now that they've done it, I hope they will continue to move this process forward."
Philip has indicated it will appeal the EPA fine levied against its waste facilities in Seattle, Tacoma, Renton, and Kent for faulty storage and handling of dangerous products and improperly monitoring groundwater in Georgetown.
The company, which handles waste from major Seattle corporations such as Boeing, has racked up serious violations over the years. As Seattle Weekly first revealed, a potentially dangerous blaze erupted at the plant in 1995, leading to evacuation of the 2-acre facility on South Lucille Street and sending three workers to the hospital; Philip did not report the fire to regulatory officials for three months ("Fire Danger," Dec. 20, 2000).
Philip mishandled an even more dangerous fire that burned for four and a half hours at its Kent chemical-waste treatment facility in 1995. The company also paid $120,000 to settle a claim by the E.P.A. that Philip did not report the 1998 release of 641 pounds of nitrogen dioxide gas at its Tacoma dangerous-waste facility.
Officials from the state Department of Ecology—which is replacing the EPA as the site's regulator—admitted at a recent public hearing that if a fire erupted at Philip today, "Georgetown would be leveled," says Tim O'Brian, who attended the meeting.
Some are worried that Philip, which is reorganizing in bankruptcy court, may move or sell the Seattle operation and let a new owner deal with the spill cleanup, causing more regulatory delays. That's been the history of prior owners of the site, which dates to the 1970s.
Hendrickson says she and others are prepared to continue the fight. "I think they believe we will get tired of fighting about it, get tired of hearing about it and talking about it, and will just go away," she says. "They should think again."