Community Post

Polluted Sites: Why no progress, what’s next

On Earth Day we wrote about five polluted properties in the neighborhood that have no plans in place to be cleaned up. The obvious follow-up was to find out more about the process and what the next steps might be.

We spoke with Russ Olsen of the State Department of Ecology, who said that all of the rules around contaminated properties are driven by the Model Toxics Control Act, a citizen initiative which was passed in 1988. It requires property owners or occupants to report any toxic contamination within ninety days of its discovery.

In the majority of cases, the people responsible for the pollution enter into voluntary agreements with the Ecology department to get things cleaned up. This avoids legal action and is thus cheaper in the long run. Twenty six sites in the Central District have followed that path in the last ten years.

For the other polluters that don’t take responsibility for the clean-up, the state does have the power to take them to court and force them to do so. However, those sorts of actions a limited by the available budgets of both the Department of Ecology and the Attorney General. The state rates each contaminated site with a value of one to five, with one being the most serious and most likely to see enforcement action. The unresolved sites in our neighborhood rate either as twos or threes, and may never get to the point of seeing the state force a clean-up.

Mr. Olsen stressed that public health is the biggest factor in these cases. For example, if someone’s water wells were affected, that would make things more serious. Or if the department’s studies indicated that the presence of the toxic materials posed an immediate danger to people around the property, it would be more likely that the state would force a clean-up. 

In the absence of action by regulators, state law does give individual citizens the ability to take polluters to court and get a formal clean-up order. That’s likely a multi-thousand dollar legal proposition, although you do stand to recover your legal fees if the court rules in your favor.

So are these sites something to worry too much about? In most cases, probably not. The few exceptions are if you’re making use of ground water or have runoff from a polluted site crossing your property. But if one of these sites are your neighbors, it wouldn’t hurt to keep an eye on things and maybe even let the polluter know that you’re concerned about the situation.

Anyone with questions are encouraged to contact the Department of Ecology’s Russ Olsen at 425-649-7038.

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