Almost every day for the past five years I have walked past a slice of history without even knowing it, and I suspect most of those yuppie bike riders and joggers do not have the foggiest, either. It is just there. What we are discussing here is a fenced-in piece of property located just south of the 196th and 72nd Street overpass in Kent, adjacent to the Interurban Trail. The property is an empty green patch of a dozen acres or so, save for what appears to be a few tin-sided buildings and an out-building or two. Their purpose was unknown to me; there were no signs or postings that indicated its business or reason for being. The entry was always locked; when a rare vehicle entered the grounds, the driver always locked the gate behind him; access into the place was apparently restricted to those with a need-to-know. I assumed it had something to do with parks or ecology, or perhaps a DOT facility, and thought nothing more of it.
Then a few weeks ago I happened upon a public notice nearby, which indicated that there would be new road construction adjacent to something referred to as the Western Processing Company Superfund site. Could that be this super-secret property? I checked around the Internet, and it wasn’t hard to find a government website devoted to providing information on the goings-on at precisely that location. Apparently this place was a major news item a few years before I arrived in town. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s fourth five-year study in 2008, the story goes something like this:
“The Western Processing Company, Inc. operated from 1961 to 1983 on a 13 acre parcel of land that encompasses most of the current Superfund site. Originally, Western Processing reprocessed animal by-products and brewer's yeast. During the 1960s, the business expanded their operations, to store, reclaim, or bury waste from over 300 businesses, including some of the Pacific Northwest's largest industries. Spills and the improper storage or disposal of wastes or reclamation byproducts caused heavy contamination of site soils, shallow groundwater beneath the site, and Mill Creek.
“Investigations identified more than 90 of EPA's priority pollutants at the site, most in the categories of volatile organic compounds, semi-volatile organic compounds and heavy metals. Operation of the Western Processing Company ceased in 1983 by federal court order and the site was placed on the National Priorities List (NPL) in September 1983.
“Initial investigations revealed aquitards and differences in water chemistry between the different zones of water, so these were originally believed to be discrete aquifers. Subsequent investigations showed that to be incorrect… Of the approximately 5,000 drums stored on site, many were leaking, corroded, or bulging. In several locations, drums containing incompatible materials (e.g. cyanides and ketones, acids and caustics, acids and ethyl amines) were stored together. During the sampling, battery casings were found at depths of 15’ to 24’ bgs.
“Analysis of over 160 soil and groundwater samples confirmed that hazardous substances had been released into the environment, had contaminated the shallow aquifer, and had caused widespread contamination of soils at the site. Sediment and surface water samples confirmed that site contamination had impacted the creek and that Mill Creek exceeded ambient water quality criteria for aquatic organisms. The site had a Hazard Ranking System (HRS) score of 58.63 at the time it was listed on the NPL. Primary contaminants groups included: Halogenated volatile organic compounds (VOCs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), phenolic compounds, and metals.”
In a 1990 court case in which the major producer of waste at the site, Boeing, was suing its insurers for the site’s clean-up costs, one witness to the goings-on at Western Processing called the conditions there “ghastly.” The Seattle Times reported that “A former Metro official testified…that pollution at Western Processing reached ‘intolerable’ and ‘deplorable’ levels in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although toxic waste storage there was ‘a chemical brew . . . a chemical soup, really,’ Allan Poole, an industrial waste engineer, said the state's permit for the site was so loose as to constitute no restraint on pollution at all.”
In 1969, Poole found an unlined “lagoon” filled with 2 million gallons of chemical wastes on the site, with “significant” levels of chromium, a metal of extreme toxicity—up to 200 times the legal limit. In a 1970 inspection, Poole found oil and “precipitated solids, probably metals” in the pool. This and other pools on the site were largely uncontained, and “Runoff from a chromium sludge storage site and a solvent reclaiming area ran directly into a ditch that drained into the Green River,” according to the Times.
How did this happen? For years, local industries sent their chemical waste ‘business” to Western Processing, but Western’s biggest customer was Boeing, which has extensive facilities only a mile away; up until the late 1970s, Boeing “shipped” 24 million gallons of chemical wastes to Western and the Queen City Farms waste site in Maple Valley. Boeing decided that this was politically safer than simply dumping its waste into Puget Sound, as it had been doing for years; Western Processing also had the added attraction of being located in the middle of nowhere and out-of-sight. Although Washington is considered a “progressive” state to outsiders, those of us inside know better. As the Times reported, “Boeing has tried to show that its activities at Western Processing were sanctioned by the old state Pollution Control Commission and the Department of Ecology, the two environmental regulatory agencies in charge of pollution control at the time. Poole testified…that the state's standards for the operation of Western Processing were toothless.”
The owner of Western Processing, Garmt Nieuenhuis, claimed that he was “persuaded” by the state to use his facilities for waste storage, even though he knew next to nothing about properly storing or treating it. Nieuenhuis claimed that Boeing was sending him an “overwhelming” amount of waste day and night—sometimes without proper paperwork or labeling. In order to meet environmental standards at the time, he needed $300,000 to pay for upgrades. But his attempt to passing on the cost to Boeing and other businesses netted only a fraction of that amount. Cost, apparently, was a major concern for Boeing, which was dumping waste on the ground “all over the place” in Washington, instead of shipping it to waste treatment facilities. According to the Times, “From the 1950s through the 1970s, Boeing continued to allow millions of gallons of waste acids, solvents and oils to be dumped in the ground in Washington state, even though it had constructed a state-of-the-art treatment facility at its Wichita, Kan., plant, paid for in large part by the Air Force.” One inspector charged “that Boeing never told Washington officials about the plant.”
Peter Ricca, a former Boeing employee, said Western was like “watching a disaster in slow motion. It was like a bombed-out bomb site. My initial impression was that it was ghastly, and it got worse.'' At the trial in which Boeing was suing insurers who balked at covering the costs for cleaning-up the site, Ricca testified “that wastes from the ponds were draining directly into the ground, into ground water or, in some cases, off the property,” according to the Times. “In one pond, sludge containing toxic metals and acids had been dumped. Under those conditions, Ricca testified, the acids ‘resolubleized'’ the metals into a state in which they would sink directly into the ground and ground water. ‘Those ponds were something I never expected to see and something I never want to see again,’” said Ricca. He also noted that drums of chemicals—some of them leaking—littered the grounds.
Despite being a disaster site in the making, Boeing managed to keep state regulators at arms’ length for a time. According to Ricca, “It was general knowledge that Boeing had both political and financial clout with the regulators.” But in 1981, the EPA ordered the site’s operators to conduct soil and water testing for contamination; when Western failed to do so, the EPA stepped in to conduct its own testing in 1982. The site was ordered closed in 1983, and in the next few months, “over 1,900 cubic yards of solids/sludges and 930,000 gallons of waste liquids and hazardous substances were removed from the site,” according to the 2008 EPA report. By June, 1984, “Over 2,400 truckloads of chemical waste and contaminated soil and debris were removed from the site,” as were all surface structures.
6,000 gallons of dioxin was also discovered on site, but the EPA’s plan to incinerate it off-site was halted by complaints from the public, and a mobile batch reactor (a containment tank used to mix compounds to create a chemical reaction, in this case used to “treat” the dioxin) was used on-site. In 1987, another 25,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and sludge was removed from the site. In 1988, a slurry wall was constructed to contain remaining contaminants within the site. The nearby Mill Creek was continuously tested for contamination. The buildings you see inside the property housed a groundwater treatment facility and a testing lab; hidden beneath the grounds is a storm water control and groundwater extraction system.
However, the site appears to have been so highly contaminated that in the early 1990s the Trust Fund overseeing the clean-up asked for a waiver, claiming that it could not complete the clean-up in “a reasonable time or at a reasonable cost.” Instead of giving the clean-up more time and money, the EPA changed the clean-up objective from “an aggressive effort to restore groundwater quality to acceptable levels within 5 to 7 years to a containment strategy to keep the contamination on site and prevent further off-site migration.” Today, while the grounds have been sufficiently cleaned-up for “reuse,” a recent evaluation suggests that “there are insufficient profit margins to make reuse a worthwhile goal to pursue at this time, but this may change in response to future market conditions.”
Boeing—which was the principle offender in all of this, was found only partially liable for payment of the Super Fund clean-up cost in the 1990 court case. However, it was just the tip of the iceberg: Boeing was also responsible for 14 additional Superfund sites in Washington, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Kansas, North Dakota and Oklahoma.