Sodo site selected for homeless is found to be contaminated
The Sodo property selected for a homeless encampment is being placed on a state list of contaminated sites because of petroleum byproducts...
Seattle Times staff reporter
The Sodo property selected for a homeless encampment is being placed on a state list of contaminated sites because of petroleum byproducts and a toxic cleaning solvent in the groundwater.
Mayor Mike McGinn chose the site this month even though a city consultant reported more than a year ago the site was contaminated. It's not clear where the chemicals came from, and such contamination is not unusual on old industrial sites.
But Public Health — Seattle & King County has not yet determined whether the site is safe for people.
The contamination could raise another complication in the mayor's plan to give 100 to 150 homeless campers a long-term, city-sanctioned space.
Two homeless encampments in Seattle — Nickelsville and Tent City — must move every 90 days under current city rules, and a recent count found 2,000 people on the street without shelter overnight.
After learning about pollution at the site, the mayor hired an environmental consultant to look into health risks. A preliminary review by the consultant indicates no "major issues with the proposed use," said Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith.
The city hasn't set aside any money for the encampment, and the City Council has expressed reservations about the idea.
The site on Airport Way South is home to the former Sunny Jim peanut-butter factory, which was destroyed by fire in September. The city Department of Transportation has a sign shop at one end of the property.
A mayoral panel recommended a long-term camping site last month. McGinn selected the Sunny Jim site, with a goal to open it by March. In the meantime, he is allowing the Nickelsville community to use a former Lake City fire station for shelter over the winter.
State Department of Ecology officials said they didn't talk to the mayor's office before the Sunny Jim site was selected for an encampment. They are preparing to place the site on a publicly available list of contaminated properties, which would prompt a public-health study.
Hilary Karasz, a spokeswoman for Public Health — Seattle & King County, said her department isn't likely to study the site anytime soon. It has a 400-site waiting list.
Based on health-department findings, the state can force landowners to clean up sites.
Karasz said that although the site's asphalt pad makes groundwater contact unlikely, "If a property is contaminated, it's not ideal to be camping on a property like that."
Smith said the mayor's office will hire its own consultant to study potential public-health risks on the site. "We're not going to rely on anybody else; we're not going to wait for them," he said.
Smith didn't know how the city would pay the consultant. The homeless encampment is already unfunded in the 2011 budget.
In 2009, the city hired the engineering firm CH2M HILL to study the site after an adjacent landowner complained pollution was coming from the city's sign shop. That study found several harmful chemicals in the groundwater, including a solvent called trichloroethene, or TCE, and petroleum and byproducts known as TPH. But the engineers concluded the chemicals were at such low levels they did not require immediate cleanup.
The state's analysis found fault with the city's study. Department of Ecology investigators suspected that benzene also was present but didn't have adequate data to determine the levels of benzene contamination, and that the study "had a number of errors regarding cleanup levels.
Consequently, there is a confirmed release of TPH and TCE at this property," according to a state environmental-tracking report.
The state recommended further study by Public Health.
The CH2M HILL report was never meant to determine whether the site was safe for habitation, said Donna Musa, a site hazard-assessment coordinator for the Department of Ecology.
"If this is all the information that we had, and we did no other study ... I would say that it wouldn't necessarily raise any huge red flags," she said.
Karasz said it's hard to say without further study how risky the site is because "it's about exposure."
All three substances found at the site are known to be harmful to humans if they are exposed, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. They can cause neurological and respiratory problems, kidney problems and cancer, among other things.
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published Nov. 27, 2010, was corrected Nov. 28, 2010. Because of incorrect information provided by Seattle Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Mayor Mike McGinn didn't know about contamination on the site when he selected it for an encampment. In fact, the mayor says, he did know.
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.