Some Washington state residents refuse toxic soil cleanup

For most people, it sounded like the sensible thing to do.

Property owners whose yards were polluted by windblown fallout from the old Asarco smelter could get the top layer of their dirt scraped away and replaced for free, courtesy of Asarco.

All the landscaping would be replaced, right down to brick pathways, irrigation systems and bird baths — even the marigolds in flower beds.

Since the EPA initiated the Superfund yard cleanup program in 1993, anywhere from 1 inch to as much as 2 feet of soil has been lifted from 4,000 public and private properties in Ruston, north Tacoma and Point Defiance Park. In all, 250,000 cubic yards of arsenic- and lead-contaminated soil has been hauled off to toxic storage.

But, good as the program sounds, not everybody has been crazy about buying into it.

According to the EPA, about 100 private homeowners out of 1,500 in the Superfund cleanup area either have refused to let scientists test their property or — after contaminated dirt was discovered — refused to let cleanup crews onto their property.

Most of the holdouts live in the outer rings of the EPA's target-shaped cleanup zone, on parcels not as badlypolluted as those closer to the old emissions stack near Point Defiance.

But a handful live in the EPA bull's-eye, within the area most contaminated with lead and arsenic. They've resisted certified letters, phone calls and personal visits from EPA employees.

The holdouts are not eager to advertise their presence, and the EPA refuses to identify them, either by name or by location of property, citing privacy concerns. The EPA denied a News Tribune Freedom of Information request for their addresses.

"Disclosure of the information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy," Lori Cohen, acting director of the EPA's office of environmental cleanup, said in a written response to the request.

Last fall, the EPA began ramping up its efforts to convince the holdouts, stirred by evidence that the remaining yards are more polluted than previously thought. The agency was also enriched with $5 million in federal economic stimulus funds allocated specifically to wrap up the yard cleanup program.

The EPA's resolve to finish the job was strengthened further last month by an agreement in Asarco's bankruptcy proceedings. The judge in the case approved a deal in which Asarco, purchased by Grupo Mexico, will fully fund all of its environmental liabilities in the United States, including the Ruston site.

"I can't tell you at this point what enforcement action we'll take," said Kevin Rochlin, the EPA's manager of the Ruston yard cleanup project. "The job that I have been tasked with is to convince people to let us clean up their property. It's a good program. We have the money. It reduces risk, and we really want to encourage people to take advantage of it."

The standoff over the remaining yards is taking place at a tender confluence of law, environmental science and politics, and it raises difficult questions.


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