Toxic site cleanup stalled for years


William C. Dietz, KP News

Horseshoe Lake Auto Wrecking operates on property owned by Harvey Ennis. The property has been classified as a level 1 in toxicity, representing the highest relative risk by the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department. Photo by Bjorn Debord, Special to the KP News

Almost seven years after a site assessment by the county determined property at Horseshoe Lake Auto Wrecking contained hazardous chemicals; there has been no cleanup.

Significant amounts of benzene and cadmium were found on the property. Both substances are classified as carcinogens, which is why the county and state have targeted the site.

In a letter sent to the couple who own the land from the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department states, “…The site’s hazard ranking…has been determined to be a 1. The ranking scale ranges from 1 to 5, with 1 representing the highest relative risk and 5 the lowest relative risk.”

Harvey Ennis and his wife still own the property, and Horseshoe Lake Auto Wrecking is still in operation. The site still has a hazard ranking of 1.

“We’ve got a permit to discharge water,” Ennis said. “We got that permit. We had a group come in and survey it to determine what needed to be done. It would cost $45,000. Donahue (Ray Donahue and Associates) said,  ‘For an additional charge I can come in now and clean all of that up and get you off the list,’ but it didn’t seem like a good investment to me.”

Rebecca Lawson, Southwest Region Manager for the state Toxic Cleanup Program said a lack of resources has hindered any follow-up by the state.

“My folks all have full plates – some are overflowing…”

Wrecked cars and trucks sit in piles and old heaps of old tires are kept at Horseshoe Lake Auto Wrecking in Wauna. Benzene and cadmium were found on the property where Horseshoe Lake Auto Wrecking operates. The two substances are classified as carcinogens. Photo by Bjorn Debord, Special to the KP News

Ennis said he is not aware of any legal processes or procedures regarding the property, and the wrecking yard is still in operation, however the price of metal has dropped.

That’s an issue because to clean up the site it would be necessary to scrape the topsoil into a pile, and infuse it with contaminate eating microbes (estimated cost $35,000 in 2006), or scrape the topsoil off and have it hauled away (estimated cost $80,000 in 2006.)  Either option would force the wrecking yard to shut down, depriving both the operator and Ennis of income.

When Key Pen News first published a story about the site in 2006, Ennis admitted that his property could be worth as much as $1.5 million.

Now, when asked if he would clean up in order to sell, Ennis replied, “Yes, I would.”

And, when asked if he has plans to sell, he said, “No, not at the moment.”

Though the state obviously has the site on its list, it is not on the list of priorities, Lawson said.

“Since we talked (for the 2006 story),” Lawson said, “I got a mandate in my priorities based on the Governor’s Puget Sound Initiative—and that’s where I have focused the limited resources I have to do the clean up work.”

On a web page at the Governor’s Puget Sound Initiative is described as a  “…funding plan (that) speeds up the cleanup of toxic chemicals, restores waterways and salmon habitat and helps replace old septic systems and overflowing sewers.”

Lawson went on to say, “What we tried to focus on was contaminated sediment sites and adjacent upland sites that could be contributing to contamination in the Sound.  Horseshoe Lake doesn’t fall within that category. We don’t have any information that would lead us to believe that Horseshoe Lake site is directly impacting Puget Sound.”

Of course Lawson’s department could force Ennis to comply. Here’s what she said back in 2006: “When Ecology approaches them they don’t have an option… They have to clean it up.

“We can issue an enforcement order requiring them to clean it up,” Lawson said in 2006.  “Or we can clean it up ourselves—and recover the cost from the owners.”

With a projected statewide budget shortfall of $3.2 billion resulting from the current recession, Lawson’s department isn’t likely to get additional resources soon.

“Our program, the toxic clean up program identified seven priority embayments, and three of them are in my region,” she said. “Those three are Port Angeles harbor, Oakland Bay, and Budd Inlet near Olympia…. Action could also require an attorney—and we have a shortage right now.

“It isn’t if we will get to Horseshoe Lake,” she said, “it’s when we will be able to get to it…. Eventually, I’m very confident we’re going to get to the sites like Horseshoe Lake.”