New Tacoma park emerges from Superfund site

The Dune peninsula has sweeping walking paths and parking.

Tacoma's new Dune Peninsula at Point Defiance Park. Image courtesy Metro Parks Tacoma

Since the 1980s, we've been working in partnership with the City of Tacoma and the EPA to clean up the blight and contamination left behind by the former Asarco smelter.

On Saturday, July 6, 2019, a beautiful new park was born from the smelter’s slag heap after decades of hard work, and millions of dollars in cleanup. The Dune Peninsula at Point Defiance Park is now open to the public with walking paths, a public amphitheater, and sweeping views of Puget Sound and Vashon Island.

History of the site

After operating for nearly 100 years, the Asarco smelter was designated as a Superfund cleanup site in 1987. While the smelter provided local jobs and valuable metal resources for the nation, it also left a toxic legacy in the soil, groundwater, and sediments in Puget Sound.

Historical photo of the asarco smelter when it was operational.

The former Asarco smelter plant and smokestack.

The once-iconic Asarco smokestack — the tallest in the world at 571 feet — vented heavy metals and arsenic that drifted along the winds to contaminate an estimated 1,000 square miles of land from Seattle to Olympia. Even the peninsula that the 11-acre park is built on was created from slag waste that Asarco dumped into Puget Sound over a period of decades.

Since the smelter was closed and its smokestack imploded in spectacular fashion, the site has been undergoing a remarkable physical and economic transformation. This includes the development of Point Ruston, with theaters, restaurants, shopping, and condominiums with spectacular views — and now this beautiful park.

Funding from the ashes

In 2009, Washington state was awarded a $188.5 million settlement during Asarco’s bankruptcy. $95 million of these funds were set aside for the Tacoma smelter. In 2013, the state legislature granted Ecology $5 million of these funds for the Metro Parks Trails Project. This funding was used to permanently cap 400,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil on the peninsula — enough to fill 120 Olympic-sized swimming pools — and allowed the new park to be built over the top.

Many agencies provided funds for additional improvements around the new park including:

  • $36.6 million from Metro Parks' 2014 voter-approved park bond
  • $25.4 million from the EPA
  • $3.5 million from the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office to create a 20-foot wide trail, and a pedestrian bridge over Pearl Street.
  • $2.5 million from the Washington State Department of Transportation to create a new roundabout entrance to Point Defiance Park
  • $1 million from Ecology to create a regional stormwater facility that can handle 8 million gallons of water daily from a 754 acre watershed

Naming the park

Back in the 1950s, the Asarco smelter and its pervasive pollution inspired local author Frank Herbert to draft an award-winning ecologically-inspired science fiction novel titled “Dune.” The Dune Peninsula Park is named after this novel, and Frank Herbert’s name is emblazoned on the new trail winding through it.

Cleanup continues

While the Dunes Peninsula is now open to the public, Ecology is still cleaning properties in nearby neighborhoods within the Tacoma Smelter Plume. To date, these cleanups have removed contaminated soil from homes, schools, daycares, parks, and camps in the surrounding area. Nearly 1,200 homes in the smelter plume qualify for cleanup.

Around 300 homes have already had their soil replaced, along with nearby city parks, schools and even Fort Nisqually at Point Defiance. Homeowners whose properties may be contaminated can contact us to learn more about the options available. For more information on all of our cleanup programs around the Asarco smelter, visit our Tacoma Smelter Plume Project page.