The urgency was palpable. Thousands of residents in a six-square mile area were drinking water from a shallow aquifer contaminated by a century of unregulated industry along the Yakima and Union Gap railroad corridor.
A complex mix of chemicals from pesticide manufacturing, petroleum operations, machine shops, and other historic industries leached into the soil and groundwater for decades before any environmental regulations were in place.
A primary culprit was Perchloroethylene (PCE or perc) used in dry cleaning operations and as an industrial degreaser. A likely human carcinogen, PCE has both short-term and long-term risks to human health.
Testing along the railroad corridor began in 1987, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was evaluating contaminated sites across America for possible Superfund listings. In 1989, EPA referred its findings to us for further action.
Ranging from 8 to 30 feet below the surface, the water table in what is now known as the Yakima Railroad Area is extremely shallow. This allowed years of harmful chemicals to move from contaminated soils into the groundwater, and into peoples' wells.
Our well testing identified PCE concentrations as high as 31 parts per billion (ppb), far above the 4 ppb cleanup action level for PCE in groundwater. Drinking water at or below this action level would have little or no risk of health effects.
Staffer Mark Peterschmidt has vivid memories of the response, which happened early in his Ecology career.
“I participated in water sampling from residential taps early on in Ecology’s investigation of the Yakima Railroad Area,” he said. “There were many questions from residents during this sampling process and we provided as much information as we had available.
“I learned a lot about the diversity of the community in this early investigation process. This experience has helped me throughout my career, and working with the communities and residents in our Central Region.”
Springing into action
While our response was immediate, it was clear this was going to be a long haul.
Rapid action was needed to assure clean drinking water for thousands of residents living in the 1,200 affected homes. At the same time, we faced the daunting task of cleaning up dozens of sites parked along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) track that paralleled the "Main Street" of two adjoining cities.
The 3-plus mile corridor runs from Lincoln Avenue in Yakima to Ahtanum Road in Union Gap.
Early on, we initiated a bottled water delivery program for residents with wells in the area of contamination. Working with the cities of Yakima and Union Gap, residents received water deliveries to their homes until they were able to hook up to municipal water, which was unaffected by the contamination.
“I did a ride-along with a water delivery person,” Peterschmidt recalled. “Water delivery was mainly in older residential areas dating to the 1910s, 20s and 30s. The water delivery person maneuvered through the neighborhoods, around barking dogs in the yards, and was very efficient in his deliveries.”
In February 1992, initial investigations led to an enforcement action that identified eight parties that contributed to contamination of the Railroad Area, and ordered them to take over the bottled water program. Eventually up to 20 parties became part of the enforcement order, resulting in an over-arching “railroad account” that helped fund cleanup of some very complicated sites.
Also in 1992, we provided $6.4 million to connect affected homes to the cities' water systems. Construction began in 1993, and now more than 1,200 home have municipal water supplies in the Yakima Railroad Area.
“In connecting residents to the City of Yakima water supply system, there was significant disruption to roads and even newly improved/paved roads were excavated to install water connections,” Peterschmidt said.
Cleanup in a busy industrial corridor
Over the past 30 years, many Ecology staff have contributed their efforts to identify hundreds of sources of contamination, to clean up legacy pollution to soils and groundwater, and revitalize businesses along the Yakima Railroad Area corridor. Some employees even outlasted the numerous law firms representing the liable parties. The litigation tested the state’s newly-minted Model Toxics Control Act of 1989 that requires polluters to pay for cleanups, regardless of when the pollution occurred.
Under state regulations, any business that uses or produces hazardous or dangerous materials is responsible for those materials from "cradle to grave," which covers the life of the materials.
Particularly daunting was the former Yakima Valley Spray pesticide formulator and distributor, and a Shell Oil bulk oil distributor that coexisted on South First Street in Yakima where a U-Haul business now resides. Investigations identified a complex stew of more than 60 individual contaminants in the soil resulting from pesticide manufacturing from 1908 to 1974 on bare ground. This migrated to the groundwater 20-feet below. In addition, a 6,000-gallon tank of PCE installed at the site leaked to soil and groundwater.
Up and down the corridor, buildings were demolished and contaminated soil removed. Excavators unearthed seams of lime, sulfur, and arsenic that resembled geologic strata of sedimentary rock, volcanic ash, and soil. Except, these layers were dangerous in their composition.
One facility, Cameron-Yakima, operated a thermal treatment kiln to incinerate hazardous wastes brought in from a wide variety of industries. With no emission controls in place, the operation spewed pollutants throughout the area for decades. Astoundinlgly, soil sampling at the Cameron-Yakima facility found PCE concentrations up to 720,000 parts per billion — the highest levels to date found at any site within the Yakima Railroad Area. A level of 500 ppb and below is deemed safe for human health. Twenty other hazardous substances were also identified at the site.
Over the past three decades, cleanup work has steadily progressed along the corridor, and groundwater monitoring continues to this day. Nine sites have received a “no further action” designation and nine sites remain in various stages of continued cleanup.
While the legacy of contamination created a monumental cleanup effort, the cities of Yakima and Union Gap are benefitting from a revitalized corridor that is a boon for economic redevelopment.
Throughout 2020, we’re marking our agency’s 50th anniversary with stories on how Washington state’s commitment to environmental protection has developed, and the results that commitment has achieved.