Fire danger

A toxic-waste plant in Georgetown mishandled a fire.

"As much as anything," says Georgetown resident Tim O'Brian, "I've worried about a fire at that place."

He is right to worry.

A potentially dangerous blaze erupted at the chemical-waste plant of Philip Services Corp. in 1995, leading to the evacuation of the two-acre facility on South Lucille Street and sending three workers to the hospital, Seattle Weekly has learned.

Under federal law, hazardous-waste facilities such as Philip Services' Georgetown site must notify state and federal agencies immediately when there is a fire, spill, or accidental release.

But Philip Services did not report the fire to its oversight agencies for three months, says the state Department of Ecology (DOE). After an investigation, state officials warned Philip Services of serious penalties for such breakdowns and ordered the company to correct its safety and reporting procedures.

Reports filed by federal, state, and Philip Services officials, recently reviewed by the Weekly, detail how a chemical box containing aluminum shavings and other debris caught fire in Georgetown on March 17, 1995, a year after Philip Services took over the waste operation.

"Plant personnel," the company reports, "grabbed fire extinguishers to fight the fire, but as it flared and smoked, it was decided to call 911 and evacuate the plant. The Seattle Fire Dept. arrived in minutes, and after assessing the situation, they quickly extinguished the fire with foam."

Until now, Georgetowners had heard only rumors of the fire. "I'm bowled over," says community activist O'Brian. "And I'm angry." As a leader of Georgetown's Community Council, he had tried to document rumor of the chemical site fire by requesting public documents from the Seattle Fire Dept. but was told no such reports exist (two Weekly records requests to the SFD also came up empty).

Barbara Smith, a spokesperson for the Canada-based scrap metal and waste recovery giant, would not comment directly on the fire but insisted its safety record at the site is "very good." Philip Services feels the same about its other local industrial-waste sites, but the company mishandled an even more dangerous fire that burned for four and a half hours at its Kent chemical-waste treatment facility, also in 1995.

According to regulatory documents, a small fire in a treatment tank steadily grew into a larger fire when workers tried to extinguish it with water—which can feed chemical blazes. When local firefighters finally stopped the blaze, the tank and its building were extensively damaged. Chemical waste was carried off by foam and water, and the site was contaminated, requiring extensive cleanup. Philip Services was again warned and ordered to reevaluate its waste-handling and fire-safety procedures.

The company's problems have continued.

It is currently reorganizing in bankruptcy court and is facing an investigation by US and Canadian security authorities for issuing an allegedly false financial prospectus to investors (see "Toxic Harvest," SW, 8/31).

In February, the company agreed to a $120,000 settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for not reporting the dangerous June 26, 1998, release of 641 pounds of nitrogen dioxide gas at its Tacoma dangerous-waste facility.

Three months ago, the state DOE ordered Philip Services to correct deficiencies at its Georgetown operation, including improper monitoring and emissions and storing chemical waste in a tank intended for treatment use only (the DOE and EPA share oversight of the facility until the DOE takes over as primary watchdog sometime next year).

The company's problems spread beyond its five Washington operations. It recently settled a hazardous-waste violation case in Missouri for $225,000 and, in September, agreed to pay $1 million to the state of New York and plead guilty to a criminal misdemeanor for improper disposal of lead waste.

In Seattle, Philip Services has quietly informed city officials of new underground risks in Georgetown.

In an August 16 letter to the city, the company's corrective actions manager, Carolyn Mayer, warned that "construction and utility workers should wear Level D personal protective equipment (PPE) when working in this [Georgetown] area and should monitor the breathing air for volatile organic compounds. . . . Skin should be covered. . . . and eye protection should be worn at all times. Workers should take care to properly decontaminate themselves upon finishing."

Level D gear includes heavy-duty coveralls, two sets of industrial gloves, steel-toe neoprene boots, goggles, chemical detectors, and pressurized eyewash.

Depth of the potentially hazardous underground work isn't specified, but EPA toxicologist Marcia Bailey says the neighborhood's chemically contaminated aquifers run within six feet of the surface during the wet fall and winter. Some chemicals create rising gases that can collect in trenches, tunnels, and basements.

Typically, nobody told Georgetown.

"The warning is surprising in several ways," says community council spokesperson O'Brian. "One, because we didn't know about it, and two, because Philip didn't stonewall the city, unlike the way they've been stonewalling us."

The city says it is following the recommended safety procedures. "We're aware of the situation" in Georgetown, says Harris Martin of City Light's environmental and safety division. "I'm sure we were already taking all the precautions to make our workers safe."

Mayer chose not to comment, but corporate spokesperson Smith says the warning letter is "standard industry stuff" and feels residents have already been properly alerted to underground hazards. Corporate and government testing of the groundwater has so far found "no immediate threat" to residents, she says.

Curt Hart, public information manager for the state DOE, says that may not be so. "We still don't have the complete picture" of the threat to Georgetown, he cautions.

Among the toxic industrial waste in the community's ecosystem are concentrations of benzene, a widely used flammable chemical, and vinyl chloride, used to produce plastics. Tests have also found supposedly "safe" levels of cyanide.

"We're especially worried about benzene and the chloride," says Hart. Depending on dose and exposure, benzene can cause anything from drowsiness to leukemia. Vinyl chloride exposure can lead to dizziness or, in larger concentrations, liver and nerve damage.

It's unclear whether the chemicals have affected Georgetown plant life, including the abundant garden vegetables. Philip Services calls such soil-vapor contamination "unlikely."

The company recently installed a series of off-site soil-gas ports and monitoring wells in the area as part of its government-ordered risk-assessment plan—which had been delayed after the EPA found parts of the plan unacceptable or deficient, and demanded changes. Smith says Philip Services is complying with all cleanup and deficiency orders.

The EPA is debating whether to order the company to make a more determined effort to clean up the contamination that is moving westerly through aquifers toward the Duwamish River.

"There is a complete exposure pathway from the groundwater to the air in Georgetown," says Bailey. "That means, simply, people in homes there are being exposed to hazardous chemicals."

The toxicologist, who is urging swift action, says her tests show chemicals have contaminated the air in local basements. "We don't really know how many homes are affected," she says. "And the threat is worsening" as the chemicals keep moving.

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