Abitibi site monitored for possible surface and groundwater pollution

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Very few structures at the Abitibi mill site in Steilacoom remain.

Very few structures at the Abitibi mill site in Steilacoom remain.

Local, county and state government agencies are monitoring the old Abitibi mill site in Steilacoom for possible pollution to surface and groundwater resulting from the demolition taking place on the site.

The Town of Steilacoom is checking to ensure that the owner, Ralston Investments, complies with its permits. The Department of Ecology (Ecology) has notified the site’s owner that a construction stormwater general permit is needed.

The Tacoma Pierce County Health Department is also investigating demolition waste at the industrial-zoned property.

Possible run-off from the 72 acre Abitibi site covered Chambers Creek Road in Steilacoom in December.  Some structures on the property, located at 4302 Chambers Creek Road across from Chambers Bay, have been demolished for salvage since Ralston Investments bought the site in 2010.

“Anytime there is run-off, it is a concern because of potential pollution,” said Linda Kent, Ecology’s Olympic and Southwest Regions Communications Manager. “Ecology’s Water Quality Program is still assessing the situation at this site.”

Ralston Investments, the Portland based owner, never filed a construction stormwater general permit with Ecology. According to Ecology’s website, this permit is required whenever there are any “land-disturbing activities that result in the disturbance of one or more acres”. When South Puget Sound News attempted to reach the owner for comment, the phone number listed for that company rang to a recording that states that the voice mailbox is full.

Kent explained, “Stormwater construction permits are important. The permit is in place to prevent pollution of surface and groundwater and thus reduce the potential for environmental harm. Any run-off would go to Chambers Creek, which is home to salmon runs for Chum, Coho, Chinook, and some Pinks.”

When asked whether any recent water samples were taken at the Abitibi site, Kent responded, “Ecology’s Water Quality program has not taken any samples, as there are no active permits for this site.”

Paul Loveless, Steilacoom’s Town Administrator, said, “The Town is pursuing compliance on the demolition and clearing and grading permit conditions that we issued.”

When asked if the water on Chambers Creek Road in December was run-off from the Abitibi site, he replied, “Potentially, along with other run-off from the abutting canyon and hillsides.”

In 2005, Ralston Investments was assessed a fine for allowing muddy water from a sloped development in Camas to run into Lacamas lake. After investigating that incident, Ecology found that Ralston Investments and the excavation company involved didn’t have a plan in place to control or prevent stormwater run-off there.

Regarding the Abitibi site, Kent shared that “the (Ecology) site manager did notice that flooding was taking place on the property, and in November 2012 contacted the site owner requesting the owner determine the cause of the flooding and take action to alleviate it.”

There have been problems in the past at Abitibi. After the mill closed in 2000, the site underwent a soil and groundwater clean-up due to petroleum hydrocarbons and benzene levels. Prior to the clean-up, the arsenic in the groundwater there exceeded that allowed under the Model Toxic Control Act.

In a memorandum to the mayor and Steilacoom Town Council on January 4, Loveless wrote that staff members from Steilacoom met with DOE representatives on December 28 to discuss the Abitibi site and run-off issues.

He wrote in the update, “Due to the nature of the issue, staff will continue working cooperatively with Ecology officials to ensure compliance with applicable regulations.”

Large tarps cover some of the debris at the fenced Abitibi mill site in Steilacoom.

Large tarps cover some of the debris at the fenced Abitibi mill site in Steilacoom.

John Sherman, the Environmental Health Liaison of the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department, said that Ecology contacted them January 8 regarding Abitibi.

“The Health Department’s Code Enforcement Program is addressing a complaint regarding the demolition waste at the property,” Sherman said.

Department representatives visited the site January 24.

“Staff noted large volumes of demolition debris, much of it sorted, and workers actively loading a dump truck with debris from the front of the property,” Sherman commented. “The complaint remains active and on-going, and a follow-up inspection is scheduled to assess continued progress at the site.”

Sherman added, “Although building demolition is an inherently messy business, we expect operators to manage demolition debris in a way that minimizes possible impacts to neighbors and the environment. Better management may involve the use of large drop boxes (rather than piles), or loading and moving debris off-site more timely, both of which reduce possible off-site water quality impacts. We are pleased that demolition debris was actively being moved off-site during our January 24 inspection, and look forward to additional progress on the site.”

The Chambers Creek Restoration Team is concerned about the possibility of run-off from Abitibi and its possible effects on the area. The group of volunteers rebuilt the fish ladder on the Chambers Creek dam in September, and has a long-term goal of restoring the Chambers Bay Estuary. Al Schmauder, a member of the group, met with Lovelace, Public Works Director Mark Burlingame, and Town Planner Doug Fortner on January 28. Schmauder said he gave them “a detailed drawing of the Abitibi site” that included details about the location of pipes, and where they lead to Garrison Springs and Puget Sound.

Schmauder stated in an email, “Keeping polluted runoff out of the bay is a must for our group. We want the owner of Abitibi to employ best management practices to retain storm run-off so particles settle out, and, if necessary, to filter out any pollutants prior to allowing the water to enter the public’s water, which is Chambers Bay and Puget Sound.”

There are some large tanks on the property which the Chambers Creek Restoration Team is also concerned about. Although these don’t fall under the category of demolition waste, Sherman said that the TPCHD staff who were at the site on January 24 noticed that nothing was in them, and they appeared clean.

What the future holds

Forterra, formerly known as the Cascade Land Conservancy, is interested in purchasing the Abitibi site.

Jordan Rash, Forterra’s conservation director, said, “Forterra has been talking to the current property owner. The dialogue has been positive.”

Forterra submitted a $200,000 grant request to the Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program, which was created by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Betsy Lyons of the ESRP said that the proposal was to acquire the mill property and for additional feasibility and stakeholder outreach around restoration of this site.

Out of the 34 proposals that ESRP received, the Forterra proposal was ranked 33.

“The low ranking was generally a reflection of the stage of the project,” Lyons explained.

Regardless, Forterra intends to continue to pursue the Abitibi purchase.

“The ecological and cultural significance of this property can’t be overstated,” said Rash

Forterra representatives have been talking with several groups about buying the Abitibi property, including the Tacoma Audubon Society, the Puget Sound Partnership, and the Nisqually, Puyallup and Squaxin tribes.

Forterra hasn’t contacted the Steilacoom tribe about the Abitibi site, however, according to Tribal Chair Danny Marshall.

“The location of this property is in the traditional area of the Steilacoom people, it is also in very close proximity to the main village of our tribe, with both historical and pre-historical factors that need to be protected,” he wrote in an email to the South Puget Sound News.

“Throughout the years, we have worked with the Town of Steilacoom, Pierce County, and the previous commercial owners to oversee the impact on our traditional land and waters. As always, money plays a big part in what will happen with this property,” said Marshall.


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