HERE THE NEWS had seemed so good. The underground chemical flow was being monitored, the government handed out a weighty fine, and the big polluter was packing it in. Four decades of fouled environment, and Georgetown could finally see light.
Then Bill Proctor got the call. It surprised him so much the other day that he can't recall the exact words. But he thinks the mortgage company said it was turning him down because of "the issue of pollution."
"They didn't say what kind of pollution or anything," Proctor, 56, a longshoreman, said last week at the Georgetown home where he lives with his son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter. "But it was pretty clear they wouldn't refinance me because of the chemical plume."
That would be the Georgetown plume, the virtual cloud of toxic groundwater that lies beneath. Generated by the historic chemical spills from local businesses, principally the chemicals handled at the Philip Services Corp. toxic-waste facility on South Lucille Street, Georgetown's polluted aquifers have created gassy basement emissions and a river of worry.
City workers must dress in extra- protective gear when working below ground, and residents have been warned to never drink the groundwater or use it even to irrigate lawns and gardens.
Now Proctor wonders if the plume's fearful outline has also become an environmental redline, discriminately drawn by banks around one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. If homeowners can't sell or refinance, then the pollution has spread even farther into their futures.
"They told me everything looks good, my credit was excellent," says Proctor. "But they said the pollution made the underwriter nervous."
That's correct, confirms the mortgage company.
"Because of the pollution in that area," says Ray Cabrera, a broker with American Unified Mortgage, headquartered in San Diego, "we were unable to finance Mr. Proctor.
"The papers on his existing mortgage note there is toxic waste on the property or in the area. We wouldn't be able to sell off the refinanced mortgage [to an underwriter] because of that condition.
"We're sorry, but taking on that kind of liability opens up a can of worms."
Proctor began calling state officials and Seattle City Council member Richard McIver. "No one called me back," Proctor says. Eventually, King County Council member Dwight Pelz's office responded.
"This is the first anyone's heard about it," says Pelz aide Chris Arkills, who has contacted City Council members and plans to alert the mayor's office. "I think this is going to come up over and over again. If this is redlining, we've got to act."
It happens just as Philip is preparing to sink a 70-foot-deep slurry wall to prevent further seepage from its property and then close the facility as part of a $773,000 federal settlement for pollution violations. "They're moving everything to a Tacoma industrial area by the end of 2003," says the state Department of Ecology's Galen Tritt. "But the corrective action [cleanup] would be ongoing for as long as it takes."
That plays on Proctor's mind as he tries anew to refinance with a local bank. He may have to release any lender from liability and finance a costly environmental evaluation.
The thing is, Proctor says, "I have a letter the state sent me. It says my home is well outside the plume. What does that mean for people sitting on top of it?"