Don't eat the dirt

Despite a heralded reopening, Gas Works Park remains on the list of hazardous sites.

IS GAS WORKS PARK, reopened in time for this week's Fourth of July fireworks, the environmental showcase officials are proclaiming?

Sure, if you discount the pollution.

State and local leaders, including a relaxed Mayor Paul Schell in a necktie and running shoes, took small bows during Saturday's ribbon-cutting event at the undulating 20-acre north Lake Union park. There was free music and Frisbees, and endless marveling at how the reborn Wallingford park's typically straw-brown grass had turned into shimmering playing fields, thanks to a new irrigation system and a foot of topsoil laid across a synthetic cover.

After a $3 million city-state cleanup that took seven months, officials shouted over the windy din of flapping banners to pronounce the onetime coal and oil gasification plant site safe for visitors.

"Environmental cleanup a success," one city sign declared. "Oh, yes, it's safe, very safe," said city parks superintendent Ken Bounds.

Still, Gas Works remains a waterfront park where you can't wade, swim, or fish due to chemical sediment. It is a playground where signs warn children not to eat the dirt due to contamination below.

Cleanup is far from complete, and the park still sports a no. 1 ranking on the state Department of Ecology's (DOE) list of hazardous chemical sites. The ranking is based on the amount of contaminants, their toxicity, and how easily people can come in contact with the chemicals. It could remain listed for years.

"There's no real risk to humans," insists DOE site manager Craig Thompson, a big, bearded, friendly man. "But we're not done by any means."

While officials went through their media photo ops Saturday, a sign warned would-be swimmers that "the lake sediment contains hazardous substances." At the lesser-traveled western entrance to the park, another reads, "Don't dig in the dirt or let pets dig in the dirt. Eating contaminated dirt over a long period of time is a significant health risk." It advised visitors to wash their hands after playing in the park.

The latter sign is among those erected a few years ago after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency moved in with respirators and rubber gloves to take a serious look at the chemicals leftover from the 50-year operation of the 1906 gas plant (its hulking skeletal remains are still there behind fences).

Though cleansing is ongoing, Mayor Schell thinks the don't-eat-dirt sign is no longer applicable. "We ought to take that down," he says. City Council member Nick Licata says, "It's a different park today."

DOE site manager Craig Thompson agrees but says don't eat dirt, period. "You'd have to eat a teaspoon a day for nine years or something before it would have any effect. But the point is, if I take my grandson to Green Lake, I wouldn't want him to eat the dirt there, either."

He could take him wading, however. Not so at Gas Works. "The mud smells like gas," Thompson allows, "though nobody wades in that. I mean, if they did, they'd have to wade for years and years; it's a very low contaminate level."

One of the site's active industrial legacies is an underground plume of benzene, a toxic chemical that can cause cancer through long-term exposure to high levels. Almost a century after petroleum compounds first saturated the site's soil, groundwater, shore, and air, the chemicals are still being mechanically extracted from below and burned, a process that will take years to complete.

"If you dig a hole, there'd be no benzene until four or five feet down," says Thompson. "That's so far below the surface, no one could be harmed."

The EPA probe a few years back concluded, "Human contact with highly contaminated soil and sediments should be prevented," and said there had been no significant change in sediment contamination from the 1980s.

While it's better for humans today, says Thompson, "We do worry about the [sediment's] effect on fish. Fish don't tend to hang around there, but salmon do pass by the park on their way up to the Cedar River. We really don't know what the risks are in that case, though we suspect they're moderate.

"Actually," he adds, "we're only now getting started on the offshore sediment [estimated cleanup cost: $10 million]. There's a whole bunch of things going on around Lake Union environmentally now. Go out today, and you'll see divers on a boat who are part of a study of contaminates on aquatic life. For that, Lake Union is a very good place to learn."

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