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UW Tacoma Continues Work to Clean Up Historic Groundwater Contaminants
A new phase of contamination assessment and clean up is about to begin in downtown Tacoma.
In 1995 construction began that would preserve and revitalize Tacoma's historic warehouse district, turning vacant and underutilized historic buildings into the new campus of the University of Washington Tacoma. Along with the historic buildings, however, the industrial legacy of that part of town left behind a variety of contaminants. Over the years, those contaminants have trickled down into the groundwater running under campus.
Agreed Order #1
Construction work on the new campus turned up underground contamination, and in 1997 the University and the State Department of Ecology entered into a voluntary "Agreed Order" to coordinate efforts to identify the extent of contamination and get it cleaned up. Even though it didn't cause the pollution, because UW Tacoma owns the property, the University is named as the "Potentially Liable Party," responsible for the investigation and clean up of whatever polluting chemicals lie under it.
Since then the University has been working to assess the type and extent of pollution under its 46-acre footprint. This has involved drilling deep holes, taking ground water samples out of those holes, and testing to determine what contaminants, if any, are present. This game of chemical Battleship has produced a kind of scary looking map of the locations of an array of chemical contaminants in the groundwater running under campus.
The map shows extensive contamination coming from multiple sources - some of the contaminated groundwater plumes are fairly focused, and others much larger in area of impact. For some the sources have been identified, but others, like the large plume of Trichloroethene (TCE) contamination (in green on the map), have yet to have their source identified.
The University has been monitoring the situation to ensure that no harmful off-gassing or other negative health impacts are affecting people on campus. The good news is that they aren't. The bad news is that things tend to roll downhill, and what's downhill from UWT is the Foss Waterway, which could be negatively impacted if the contaminated groundwater continues to seep downhill.
So the contamination needs to be cleaned up. And in order to clean them up, the sources need to be identified.
Agreed Order #2
The original Agreed Order laid out responsibilities and a timeline for work in the first phase of the project. That original scope of work, which only accounted for the campus footprint, has now been completed, but since the source of that big green TCE plume has not been found, the University and Ecology need to enter into a second Agreed Order, which will cover the work moving uphill, as the search for the source continues.
The new order will guide placement of new drilling sites to test water, and will call for a plan to clean up the contaminated groundwater. The City of Tacoma allows for drilling to be done on City right-of-ways. UW Tacoma will continue to pay for the drilling and testing as it moves up the hill. As contamination is found on other properties, the owners "may or may not play a role in investigation and clean-up efforts," according to the UWT announcement.
Once the source is located, we will know whether the contamination has stopped, or whether it continues, and a plan for cleaning it up can be developed. Cleanup activities fall under Washington’s Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA) and accompanying regulations. MTCA has procedures for cleaning up contaminated sites to standards that are safe for both human health and the environment, and each phase of clean-up comes with its own report or plan that the public will be invited to comment on.
As a part of the public process at this point, Ecology is taking public comment on the proposed new Agreed Order requiring UW Tacoma, under leadership of Ecology, to:
- Conduct a remedial investigation (RI), which will describe the nature and extent of the contamination on the site.
- Conduct a feasibility study (FS), which will evaluate cleanup options for the site.
- Submit a draft cleanup action plan, which will outline proposed cleanup actions for the site.
The Public Participation Plan, which describes the tools Ecology will use to inform the public and gather feedback, is also available for review. Find more information, review documents, and submit comments on the plans via the Ecology project page. Also get more of the story from UW Tacoma. Comments will be taken through May 4, 2016.
There will also be an open house on the project. There will be a presentation and discussion of the background, where things stand now, and where they go from here.
From the look of it, this is going to be a significant clean up project.
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