Wrecking yard site has high contamination


William C. Dietz, KP News

According to a letter from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, addressed to the couple who own the land on which Horseshoe Lake Auto Wrecking is located, “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.”

The Horseshoe Lake Wrecking Yard was placed on the state's Hazardous Sites list last year. Photo By Mindi LaRose

A site assessment conducted in April 2002 turned up significant amounts of benzene and cadmium. Benzene is a natural constituent of crude oil, but is usually synthesized from other compounds present in petroleum, and was once used to increase octane ratings and reduce knocking. Two-thirds of cadmium, an impurity found in zinc, is used to make batteries. Both substances are classified as carcinogens, which is why the site has been targeted by the county and the state.

When asked about the status of the site, Rebecca Lawson, Southwest Region manager for the Department of Ecology’s Toxic Cleanup Program said, “I don’t think we’ve taken any action on that…  Unfortunately, we have highly ranked sites that have been on the list for years, and we don’t have the resources to work on them as quickly as we want to.”

Lawson explained that while she was recently allowed to hire three new staff people, it was with the understanding that they would work on sites within half a mile of Puget Sound, as part of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s Puget Sound Partnership. A plan which, according to the Partnership’s Website, is an initiative “to protect one of the state’s crown jewels.”

So sites like the Horseshoe Lake Wrecking Yard, off State Route 302, remain on the list until Lawson’s department musters the resources necessary to go after them. And that’s when the hammer will fall. “When Ecology approaches them they don’t have an option,” Lawson says. “They have to clean it up.”

The Horseshoe Lake Wrecking Yard was placed on the state's Hazardous Sites list last year. Photo By Mindi LaRose

If they don’t, the agency can issue an enforcement order requiring the cleanup. “Or we can clean it up ourselves — and recover the cost from the owners,” Lawson said.

In the meantime, owners Mr. and Mrs. Harvey Ennis could legally sell the wrecking yard, if someone were willing to buy it in spite of the contaminated soil. Lawson says that isn’t likely, since most lenders wouldn’t loan funds for a contaminated site, but there’s nothing to prevent such a transaction if the buyer has enough money.

Len Lonning Sr., who lives behind the Lonning Saw shop located just south of the wrecking yard, filed the complaint about the contamination.

“After oily looking water backed up into my garage, I took samples, and took them to the county,” he said. “They took a look but they haven’t done anything.”

The saw shop, which was originally owned by Lonning’s grandfather, is operated by his son, Len Lonning Jr. When asked how he feels about the situation, Lonning Jr. expressed more unhappiness with county, state, and federal regulatory agencies than the neighboring wrecking yard. “There are too many regulations,” Lonning said, “and they’re too expensive.”

Asked if he’s comfortable with having contaminants like benzene and cadmium right next door, he replied, “To a degree, yes. But they should have a containment at the wrecking yard. Common sense should prevail.”

Lonning Sr. said, “I wish there was some way to divert it (the water) so it wouldn’t run into my garage. They have bales of hay over there — but they don’t stop it. The problem is that it runs past my place to Little Minter Creek.”

Lawson said regarding the creek allegation, “We won’t know until we go in to do a remedial investigation.”  And because of the staff shortage, that investigation could be years away.

The Horseshoe Lake Wrecking Yard was placed on the state's Hazardous Sites list last year. Photo By Mindi LaRose

Leonard Larson, who has operated the wrecking yard for 10 years, has a different perspective. “I don’t have to stop the water,” he said. “I just have to make sure that it’s clean.”

Both Larson and his daughter, Deane, were eager to tell KP News about the containments they use to keep toxic materials from leaking into the ground, the water samples they submit to the county on a regular basis, and their ongoing efforts to understand relevant regulations and comply with them. “You really have to have a college education to understand the regulations,” Deane Larson said. “But I call and ask questions.”

On the day KP News was there, a pile of hand tools was sitting on top of one spill kit, which made it difficult to access, and the cleanup materials that were supposed to be stored inside the other kit were missing.

For his part, Ennis said, “Like anyone else I’m concerned with the level of contamination. That’s why we spent $45,000 to have an engineer come in and map out the situation.”

Ennis says that after drilling bore holes, and taking soil samples, Raymond Donahue of Environmental Consultants Inc. concluded the site could be returned to “pristine condition” using one of two methods. The first approach, which would cost Ennis about $35,000, would be to scrape the topsoil into a pile and infuse it with contaminate eating microbes. That process would take years to complete.

The second cleanup method, which would cost approximately $80,000 and could be completed in a matter of months, involves scraping the topsoil off and having it hauled away to be recycled. Either approach would force the wrecking yard to shut down, thereby forcing Larson out of business, and denying both men the incomes they presently derive from the property.

So, until the government forces some sort of action, there’s no motivation for Larson or Ennis to do anything other than prevent further contamination. “You do what the law requires,” Ennis said, “and that’s what we’re doing.”

As for the possible contamination of Little Minter Creek, Ennis said, “Little Minter I don’t think is affected. I haven’t tested it and I don’t think the county has. We haven’t been cited for contaminating the creek.”

Given the fact that the adjacent fire station recently sold for nearly half-a-million dollars, Ennis admits his property could be worth as much as $1.5 million. He said they don’t have any “near term plans” to sell the wrecking yard, but they would have to sell it if forced to close it.