Current events

The University of Washington Tacoma is working with us to investigate contamination, evaluate cleanup alternatives, and make a cleanup plan.


Testing air quality at the Birmingham Block building

In May 2017, the University of Washington Tacoma (UWT) conducted a vapor intrusion evaluation at the Howe Parcel to make sure that groundwater contamination was not affecting air quality. The Howe Parcel buildings include the Garretson Woodruff & Pratt building, the Birmingham Block building, the Birmingham Hay & Seed building, and the West Coast Grocery building.

The evaluation looked at whether trichloroethene (TCE) and tetrachloroethene (PCE) had entered the air inside the buildings as a gas through cracks in the foundation. TCE is a solvent that is used by industries to clean grease from metal parts. PCE is a solvent that is used for dry cleaning and also to clean grease from metal parts. These contaminants can be harmful to human health.

TCE was detected at very low levels in two indoor air samples and at a higher level in one outdoor location at the Birmingham Block Building (near the heating and air conditioning system air intake). These levels are below federal and state standards for visitors and workers in commercial spaces. As is typically done in these situations, UWT re-tested in August 2020 to check the initial results and to ensure that air quality remains safe.  The re-test showed that TCE was not entering the air as a gas through cracks in the building’s foundation and that the source from the previous tests is likely a one-time or random event, and visitors and workers are not at risk of negative impacts from air quality. 

Testing air quality at UW Bookstore and Federal Courthouse buildings

In basement and ground floor areas of some buildings, we want to be sure groundwater contamination is not affecting air quality in places people visit and work.

We tested indoor air quality in the UW Bookstore building (GWP and BSG buildings) during summer, 2016. Test results showed that visitors and workers in those areas are not at risk of negative impacts from air quality.

We are currently planning further indoor air quality testing in the Federal Courthouse building on Pacific Avenue.

What you might see

This work will be mostly out of sight — in corridors and on ground and basement floors. Technicians will set up containers that collect air samples slowly over a long period from many hours to over a week.

We may use a drill to get through concrete slab-on-grade foundations, so we can test air under the building.

Why screening?

Historic activities in the area have contaminated the groundwater under some of the buildings on and near the UW Tacoma campus. The university is working under our direction to clean it up.

Throughout the cleanup process, we need to check regularly to make sure people who visit and work in the buildings in the cleanup area are not exposed to contaminating chemicals. A recent check indicated the need for follow up tests. The tests will look for contaminated air that could enter the buildings through a process called vapor intrusion.

How indoor air quality screening works

The screening processes test both indoor air and outdoor air, using specialized equipment. For indoor air testing, a metal container is left in place, and a valve lets air into the container at a set rate. The containers then go to a laboratory that can test the air samples.