University Place to rid parks of tainted soil

Source: The News Tribune, Tacoma, WA, March 29, 2011
By: Christian Hill

Later this year, crews will remove arsenic-contaminated soil from play areas at three popular University Place parks – Curran Apple Orchard, Sunset Terrace Park and Colegate/Curtis Playfield. Workers will also do minor cleanup at Cirque/Bridgeport Park.

Tests by the state Department of Ecology continue to show unacceptable levels of the toxic element, the residue of nearly a century of operations at the Asarco copper smelter.

University Place was among many Pierce County communities polluted with arsenic, lead and other heavy metals from the Ruston plant, which closed in 1984.

Officials say the level of arsenic contamination at the play areas poses no immediate danger. Contamination also turned up in the soil at Morrison and Homestead parks, but was deemed a lesser priority because it was found away from play areas.

The city and state have known about the tainted soil for more than seven years but didn’t have funding to address it until recently. Mayor Debbie Klosowski said city finances have been stressed.

“We’ve had to focus on some very basic priorities, such as police protection,” she said. “It’s not like we don’t consider this an issue, but (given) the magnitude of the problem, additional outside assistance was needed to start addressing it.”

Amy Hargrove, the Ecology Department’s soil safety program coordinator, said University Place is the first city where crews have finished sampling for arsenic and lead since the program was expanded to include play areas at public parks.

Sampling work continues at Tacoma Metro Parks properties and at parks in Fircrest, Lakewood and Steilacoom.

At the parks in UP, the testing found levels of arsenic above the state standard of 20 parts per million. At soil depths up to 6 inches, for instance, the average level at Curran was 40.6 ppm; at Sunset Terrace, 28.8 ppm; and at Colegate/Curtis, 58.8.

Some contamination was also found around the perimeter of Cirque/Bridgeport.

The city plans to follow the state’s recommendation of removing one foot of soil at the orchard’s amphitheater seating area and at Sunset Terrace’s play field, replacing it with new soil and planting new grass.

Arsenic contamination will remain throughout the orchard as there’s no way to replace the soil without damaging the trees.

During a presentation to the City Council last week, Councilman Javier Figueroa asked if there was a danger from continued harvesting of the apples.

Glenn Rollins, a specialist with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, which also is assisting with the cleanup effort, said the apples are safe as long as people wash them before eating.

“It (arsenic) is not found inside the fruit, so that’s a good thing and a simple fix,” he said.

For playgrounds at Sunset Terrace and Colegate/Curtis, the city will replace bark chips and the liners underneath.

Work at Cirque/Bridgeport Park, which opened in 2006, is minor. The recommendation is to remove a single bench, or place it on a concrete pad, near a location that tested for a high level of arsenic. Contamination will remain on the edge of a walking path, and in the woods alongside it.

Gary Cooper, the city’s public works and parks director, said all the work will take place in September, at the end of the summer activity season but with sufficient time to establish new turf before the rainy season begins.

At all the parks, the program recommends signs be placed to advise the public on ways to reduce their exposure to arsenic-tainted soils. Park maintenance workers will receive similar instructions.

Grant funding paid for soil testing starting in 2003 at children’s play areas, day care centers and school yards in portions of these communities, but there was no money set aside for cleanup. In University Place, that initial testing showed elevated arsenic levels at the same three play areas identified now.

In 2006, following passage of a state law, the state established the Soil Safety Program to, among other things, provide grants for some cleanup work at child care centers and schools.

Last year, following a $94 million bankruptcy settlement with Asarco, the program expanded to include cleanup of play areas at public parks, camps and public housing. It also began another round of soil testing.

Officials have initially budgeted $1.3 million for cleanup in those areas over 10 years.

The arsenic levels are not high enough to constitute a health emergency but are deemed a long-term health concern, officials said, especially for children who are prone to play in dirt and stick fingers and toys in their mouths.

Researchers have linked arsenic to various health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancers.

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