On the surface, Pasco's toxic waste site looks like a set of hills covered in brown and green vegetation.
No sign marks the Pasco Sanitary Landfill, which is just east of city limits at Dietrich Road and Commercial Avenue. The hills created by buried waste are surrounded by 8-foot chain-link fencing, with scattered colored poles marking where ground water and air is tested.
Nothing outwardly indicates the landfill was listed in 1990 as a Superfund site, targeted by a federal program for toxic waste cleanup. There's no sign that unknown amounts of hazardous waste have leaked into the ground water here.
Cleanup of the hazardous wastes started more than 15 years ago under the supervision of the state Department of Ecology, but a final solution has yet to be determined.
Although the landfill property is about 250 acres, cleanup is focused on a 50-acre former municipal landfill and five zones of about an acre each -- called A through E -- where industrial waste was dumped in the early 1970s, said Chuck Gruenenfelder, Ecology's site manager for the landfill.
Investigation in the 1990s revealed water and soil at the landfill had been contaminated with volatile organic compounds from wastes dumped there -- including paint, resins and herbicide and pesticide manufacturing waste.
The landfill is one of 171 Superfund sites in the state and among almost 1,400 hazardous sites the state has identified, said Seth Preston, spokesman for the Department of Ecology's air quality and toxics cleanup programs.
The 40 companies and groups considered responsible for the landfill contamination -- including Boeing, PACCAR, Freightliner and Weyerhaeuser Co. -- are footing the cleanup bill, which has reached more than $20 million, said Barbara Smith, president of Seattle's Harris & Smith Public Affairs, which represents those considered liable for the cleanup.
Pasco City Manager Gary Crutchfield said although it is the only Superfund site in Franklin County, city officials only get questions about the cleanup when state Ecology announces new cleanup plans.
"And they go, 'What cleanup?' " he said.
And now Ecology is preparing to ask in the next month for public input on upgraded cleanup actions. The department will announce soon how people will be able to comment on the plans.
That will include an upgraded soil vapor extraction system that Gruenenfelder said is doing most cleanup work at Zone A, where about 35,000 drums of industrial waste were dumped.
The system reaches 60 feet deep and uses a vacuum to suck up contaminated air so a flare system can burn contaminants, he said.
More than 300,000 pounds of volatile organic compounds have been removed from Zone A since the vacuum was installed in 1997, Gruenenfelder said.
Plans also include a new cap for Zone B, a half-acre where about 5,000 drums of herbicides were dumped, Gruenenfelder said. The drums and some contaminated soil were removed in 2002, but some pollutants remain.
There are no new plans for cleanup at Zones C through E, where liquid waste was poured into ponds and allowed to evaporate, leaving behind a dried sludge. Those zones are covered with dirt caps like Zone A, Gruenenfelder said.
The 50-acre landfill already has a system that captures and burns methane as it is produced from decomposing wastes.
Gruenenfelder said the vacuum system was already upgraded a year ago and started removing 100 to 150 pounds of contaminants per day instead of just tens of pounds. In November, the daily amount inexplicably increased, and is now in the 1,000 pounds per day range, he said.
At the same time, the cap system covering Zone A has settled in places, leaving divots like on a golf course. Gruenenfelder said the aging buried drums are under pressure and losing their contents.
The cap keeps precipitation from entering the contaminated area and spreading the waste, said Rod Lobos, Environmental Protection Agency remedial project manager.
Ground water polluted
Toxic waste has spread beyond the landfill property through the ground water. An underground plume of contaminants stretches southwest to A Street, Gruenenfelder said.
Cleanup efforts have focused on trying to stop contaminants from entering ground water, said Rick Dawson, of the Benton-Franklin Health District. And in the past 10 to 15 years the plume has shrunk.
Even if the plume reaches the Columbia River, Dawson said, contaminants would be in such small amounts that they wouldn't show up in tests.
Gruenenfelder said new testing wells also will be added soon. The state has no way otherwise to tell if the plume has reached beyond the southern-most testing wells at A Street.
For now, the plume means some east Pasco properties can't use ground water for drinking. The city designated a ground water protection area about 10 years ago, Gruenenfelder said, and homes that used to be on wells in that area are now on city water.
The city makes sure no new wells are drilled in the area east of the railroad tracks and north of A Street, and current wells aren't used for drinking if they are in the ground water plume, Crutchfield said.
Mitch Nickolds, Pasco inspection services manager, said the city annually inspects the 20 wells, including nine on residential properties, within the ground water protection area. The city has only found issues twice since starting inspections in 2002, he said.
The contaminated plume has influenced who is willing to invest in the area. Crutchfield said the Pasco School District planned several years ago to open a school in the area, but when the district realized the school would be over the plume it decided to build elsewhere.
No final solution
Twenty years after becoming a Superfund site, there isn't a final cleanup plan for the landfill. But after upgrades are completed over the next year, the state will re-evaluate the most appropriate solution, Gruenenfelder said.
"We haven't decided on the final cleanup remedy for the site yet," he said.
Industry representative Smith said there's time to work on cleanup efforts because "There is no immediate risk to human health or the environment."
Getting the hazard cleaned up right is the most important thing, Smith said. "You've got to do it right and do it once."
But Cathy Cochrane, spokeswoman for Ecology's eastern regional office, said any time there's ground water pollution it poses a risk to the environment.
And all agree no one knows for certain what's underground.
w Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricity herald.com