Naturalist Bob Jepperson walks the Anacortes Community Forest Lands (ACFL) daily as he’s done for 12 years, photographing and recording the many species that call the forest home. An owl feeding its young, a salamander’s egg mass in a pond, a Pacific chorus frog hopping across a path before disappearing in some salal … few things here miss his eye.
There’s something less natural here, near the trailhead leading from the city’s A Avenue into the expansive forest: discarded appliances, old tires, broken glass and other refuse dumped here over four decades.
The problem of waste is not an uncommon one in the Evergreen State. There are about 14,000 known or suspected waste cleanup sites in Washington, according to the Department of Ecology. And the list keeps growing. More than 7,700 of these sites are cleaned up or require no further action other than monitoring, Ecology reports.
But each year, some 300 sites are added to the list.
The state’s most notorious sites are industrial; 34 are listed as dangerous waste cleanup sites. At the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, 53 million gallons of liquid radioactive waste are stored in 177 underground tanks. Seventy of those tanks are leaking “and a plume of radioactivity” is seeping toward the Columbia River, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council reports. Some 75,000 barrels of solid radioactive waste, such as spent fuel rods, are also stored at Hanford.
Among those in active cleanup locally are HollyFrontier Puget Sound Refinery in Anacortes, the BP Cherry Point Refinery near Birch Bay and the Phillips 66 Refinery near Ferndale.
Sites like the A Avenue landfill dot the Evergreen State’s landscape from the Salish Sea to the Palouse.
“There are literally hundreds of old landfill sites like [the Anacortes site] scattered all over the state,” Ecology site manager Cris Matthews said. “They almost always never present a larger problem in terms of the environment or public health. They’re just old sites that were bulldozed over and covered up. However, with growth and development in the state, particularly in Western Washington, people come up against that. Then it comes to our attention.”
A legacy of pollution
The City of Anacortes operated a landfill on six acres off A Avenue beginning in the 1960s—first for solid waste, then for the drying of sewage sludge, and finally for the aeration of petroleum-contaminated soils. The landfill—actually a hill rather than fill—was closed and capped with a membrane and soil in the early 2000s.
Most of the former landfill is surrounded by chain-link fencing and is maintained as grassland to prevent tree roots from penetrating the membrane. The membrane was installed to keep water from entering the landfill and contaminating into surrounding soils and the aquifer, but in ensuing years, the edges of the landfill have eroded to reveal dumped material.
Jepperson is more concerned about what can’t be seen.
Public concern about the Anacortes landfill arose in 2019 when the Parks and Recreation department, which manages the ACFL, proposed transforming the landfill meadow into a bike track.
Skagit County Public Health collected water samples at the site in February and March 2020—prompted by a public complaint about exposed refuse and possible contamination—and found the soil contained petroleum waste at levels greater than those requiring cleanup, as reported in the Anacortes American in 2021. Petroleum waste and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PaHs)—formed during the incomplete burning of wood, garbage and other organic substances—are believed to be in groundwater as well, according to the Ecology website.
Ecology, which in 2009 had determined the city’s work to close the landfill sufficient, notified the city in November 2020 that a new cleanup plan would be required. The city hired an environmental cleanup consultant in January 2021 and began negotiating with Ecology to develop and carry out a new cleanup plan.
Responsible parties, remedial actions
Another nearby landfill site was more careless in its siting and operation.
The March Point (Whitmarsh) Landfill near Highway 20 is located near a Great Blue Heron rookery.
The landfill operated from 1950–1973, first as an unregulated public dump and later as a county disposal area. Over decades, household, commercial and industrial solid wastes were discarded into a natural lagoon on the shore of Padilla Bay, according to Ecology. From the late 1980s to mid-2011, a sawmill operated at the site, leaving wood waste up to 10 feet deep over large portions of the landfill.
A formal agreement in 2020 named Shell Oil Co., Texaco Inc., and Skagit County as the parties responsible for the cost of the cleanup. The remedial investigation showed soil and groundwater contaminated with benzene, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pesticides, metals and methane gas.
The site cleanup plan requires excavating and removing a portion of the landfill, covering the site with impermeable clay to prevent leakage into the bay, and capping with gravel and soils to restore shoreline habitat. The site will have a system to collect and vent landfill gas and stormwater and surface drainage systems.
What’s next at A Avenue?
Action could be near at the A Avenue site, Ecology site manager Matthews said in October.
The City and Ecology have been negotiating an agreed order under the Model Toxics Cleanup Act process that the state uses to investigate clean up hazardous waste sites he said.
Once an order is drafted, the process begins with public review and comment, agreement by both sides, a remedial investigation and a feasibility study, and a cleanup action plan,” Matthews said.
Because the order will define the process, said City Attorney Darcy Swetnam, “There’s a lot of procedural stuff we want to make sure we get right.”
MTCA cleanups are funded by a voter-approved hazardous substance tax on the wholesale transfer of petroleum products and certain pesticides and other chemicals, and by the responsible party—in this case, the City of Anacortes.
The cost of cleanup won’t be known until the plan is developed and approved. “There could be any number of different remedies that might be applied,” Matthews said. “The solution could be anything from soup to nuts—from engineering a new cover over the top of it with environmental controls, or on the far end of the spectrum digging it all up and hauling it all away to a big regional landfill.”
Tightening down on solid waste
Matthews said landfill regulations today are designed to better contain refuse, keep out rainwater that can permeate and carry contamination into surrounding water and soils, and capture gases that result from decomposing organic matter.
“The first formal regulations that covered solid waste activity and managing landfills didn’t come along until the 1970s, and it was very primitive in those days,” Matthews said. “The first real comprehensive and protective regulations for solid waste were passed in 1985.” Then the requirements became even more stringent and required that the bottoms of landfills be lined, that groundwater be monitored for contamination, and that methane gas created by decomposing refuse be captured.
By those standards, the A Avenue landfill would have to close.
The state’s Solid and Hazardous Waste Plan intends to push Washington toward becoming, by 2035, “a society where waste is viewed as inefficient, and where most wastes and toxic substances have been eliminated.”
The plan has particular requirements for the collection of hazardous waste and tires. Aluminum, glass, paper and plastics are disposed of separately to be recycled and reused. Household waste picked up at the curb is delivered to a county waste transfer station, where it is bundled and sent by truck or train to one of 19 landfills in Washington and Oregon.
Still, solid waste might never quite go away. In 2016, the latest year shown in an Ecology online database, the biggest generator of solid waste was King County at 1.2 million tons. Whatcom County was 10th of Washington’s 39 counties, with 149,294 tons. Skagit County was 13th, with 101,666 tons. San Juan was 32nd with 11,063 tons.
Out of sight but not out of mind
Despite the City of Anacortes’ 2009 A Avenue landfill closure plan, what lies beneath the surface—and increasingly on the surface—haunts the city and the ACFL.
The city’s 2009 plan aimed to avoid disrupting soils and sediments near wetlands, the Anacortes American reported in 2021. “Deeply buried materials such as large metal debris will not be pulled out due to the potential disruption to soils and other buried materials,” the plan stated. “Instead, those portions sticking up above ground will be cut off and removed wherever possible. Miscellaneous debris that is exposed at the surface but is not deeply buried (large pieces of concrete or metal) will be removed and hauled off when it is practical and cost effective to do so.”
The plan also specified that “Areas of glass within the wetland also will not be removed due to the likelihood for disruption of soils. Instead, natural physical controls, such as log barriers or obnoxious natural barriers (woody debris, tree limbs, etc.) will be implemented as public deterrents at discrete points of obvious access, such as preexisting paths or trails.”
Going forward, Jepperson would like to see exposed refuse covered, but he doesn’t want to see uneroded ground disturbed because it would disrupt habitat for animals that have adapted to life here.
“I think it should all be allowed to revert to forest,” he said.
Jepperson is most concerned about the petroleum waste and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Seasonal streams and a stream flow into a beaver pond. One seasonal stream, which Jepperson calls Old City Dump Creek, flows under deep accumulations of garbage placed on top of it. “That creek doesn’t have any natural area left,” he said last month. “It’s all garbage—uncovered garbage.”
Old City Dump Creek re-emerges in a ravine, colored red by iron-metabolizing bacteria, Jepperson said. It continues through woods and skirts the beaver pond. It formerly fanned out over a swath of land; the city ditched it so the creek empties into what Jepperson calls 32nd Street Swamp.
“I’m relieved it didn’t go into the beaver pond, but we don’t know how water moves underground,” Jepperson said. “That’s an unknown.”
—Reported by Richard Arlin Walker
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