* Image by Asahel Curtis courtesy of the Washington Historical Society. Two men spray trees in a Yakima County orchard in April 1911 from equipment staged on the back of a horse drawn wagon.
Bloggers Note: We convened the Legacy Pesticides Working Group to help us identify potential approaches to address lead and arsenic contamination of former orchard lands that transition to new development in Central Washington. The Working Group of 30 members includes a wide variety of interests and backgrounds including planners, realtors, homebuilders, bankers, developers, health experts, and elected officials.
Brief review of first Working Group meeting
The Working Group first convened in February, where members received a general overview of the potential extent of legacy pesticide contamination to orchard lands across Central Washington. They focused on sharing information about mapping of contaminated soils and typical levels of lead and arsenic found on these properties. Also shared were cleanup efforts in the Tacoma Smelter Plume area that have similar contamination levels, and the human health implications of lead and arsenic. The Working Group challenged us to develop a clear and concise approach to address legacy pesticide pollution that is reasonable and will inform decision-making in the future.
As we continue to drill down into the issue of contaminated soils and residential home development, the Working Group will be talking about buyer notifications, the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) process, outreach and education, creating a clear process for larger residential developers, and cleanup and soil sampling. Let’s dig into the specifics.
Many of us have gone through the process of buying or selling a home or property. We are probably all familiar with the hundreds of pages of legalese, small print, and endless signature pages. One important document buried in that pile is the “seller disclosure statement.” Every state has different laws associated with this buyer notification, but without it, the seller can be held legally liable for not disclosing something about their home or property that later becomes a problem.
In Washington, the “buyer notification” process is not very robust. Although there are specific disclosures pertaining to soil contamination, it is common for sellers to mark ‘don’t know’ as their response and it is legal to sell a property this way.
The Working Group will be discussing specific outreach to realtors and ways to increase awareness for potential buyers. The buyer could then ask for sampling, cleanup, or negotiate the purchase price of the property to cover those costs.
The SEPA process
The disclosure form is particularly important for individual home or property purchases, but Washington state also has a process known as the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) that pertains to the environmental impact of larger development projects. Each municipality has different triggers for projects to fall under SEPA, but generally it applies to developments that include more than six homes and large commercial or public developments.
When a project falls under SEPA, the applicant is required to identify the potential impacts of construction on air quality, water quality, noise, traffic, and habitat. There are specific questions on the SEPA checklist that address environmental health and require the applicant to identify historic or current contamination, hazardous or toxic chemicals, and measures proposed to reduce or control those hazards.
It is common for an applicant to answer “not known” on the SEPA checklist. However, these checklists come to our attention when they are open for public comment and review. We carefully review projects and our programs provide specific comments indicating our concerns relating to environmental and human health impacts. Currently, in the case of soil contaminated by legacy pesticides sprayed on former orchards, our comment is:
“Based upon the historical agricultural use of this land, there is a possibility the soil contains residual concentrations of pesticides. Ecology recommends that the soils be sampled and analyzed for lead and arsenic, and for organochlorine pesticides. If these contaminants are found at concentrations above the Model Toxics Control Act cleanup levels Ecology recommends that potential buyers be notified of their occurrence.”
The Working Group will discuss this comment and the SEPA process. We’ll work together to draft a new comment that addresses soil testing and cleanup as it relates to protecting environmental and public health.
Public outreach and education
We work across programs to help people to be aware of our efforts to protect the environmental health of the state. We have outreach specialists, educational programs, and use social media, blogs, our website and other materials such as brochures, events, and curriculum. We are an agency of scientists and it is incumbent on us to ensure that people living and working in our communities understand and support our work.
In the case of legacy pesticides, our goal is to increase awareness about the location of former orchards by providing accurate mapping tools, identifying populations at risk and exposure concerns, and sharing what we are doing to clean up contaminated properties.
Several members on the Working Group represent public health organizations and have a long history of raising awareness and communicating effectively with the public. We know that comprehensive outreach and education programs are key to keeping people healthy and protecting the environment. We are confident we will build great outreach tools through the strong partnerships and coordinated approach we are taking with the Working Group.
The development process
Making a decision to purchase or build on property can often be intimidating. It can involve large sums of money, long-term commitments, and the investment of hope and vision. This is true for both individuals and large companies that develop properties regularly. Either way, having a clear path from point A to point B is crucial for project success.
Environmental assessments, including SEPA, typically occur early in the life of a project and can help identify what it will take to move forward effectively. Our goal is to facilitate a clear process that identifies manageable risks and provides a reasonable approach to protecting environmental and human health.
The Working Group will take a look at timing, permitting, planning, and more when considering how to cleanup legacy pesticide contaminated soils. They will take a solution-oriented approach to local planning requirements in different city and county regulations and determine where cleanup might fit in the process.
Soil sampling and mapping
Ecology is in the process of finalizing the posting of searchable maps online so the public can easily find information about their own properties and identify the potential for legacy pesticide contamination. The well-established method of historic aerial photo interpretation followed by soil sampling has shown that our maps are highly accurate.
The Working Group will discuss the roll-out and timing of these maps in coordination with our public outreach and education campaign.
We currently offer free soil sampling and technical assistance to anyone requesting additional information. Please contact us at the numbers below to find out more.
Due to COVID-19 travel and meeting restrictions, it is likely upcoming meetings will be postponed or held online. After our second Working Group meeting is held, we share the results in another blog post.
Want more information?
Jill Scheffer Jeff Newschwander
Section Planner, Toxics Cleanup Program Area-wide Contamination Coordinator