Another try at fixing BI’s Superfund project

It’s been a long time coming, and it will be some time before it’s done, but progress is being made on the Superfund cleanup site on Bainbridge Island.

It’s located across Eagle Harbor from Winslow at the eastern tip next to Pritchard Park. The land was polluted decades ago by the Wyckoff wood-treating creosote plant.

The Environmental Protection Agency has gotten all the funds it can from Wyckoff. Taxpayers will pay the rest.

“Wyckoff paid but nowhere near” the hundreds of millions of dollars it will cost to fix it, said Jacob Moersen, a remedial project manager with the EPA. He updated the BI City Council at a recent work session on the project. It became a Superfund site in 1987, and the company shut it down a year later.

The environmental cleanup is potentially subject to an increase in federal funding, which would mean more activity at the site over the next 10 years or so. The feds will pay 90% and the state 10%.

This fall, the EPA will be seeking input from the city and public regarding the final state of the property, including any low-impact facilities for public access, that will be planned and constructed as part of the last phase of the cleanup.

Moersen said the upper aquifer at the site is contaminated with 650 gallons of creosote. “It’s of utmost importance to treat” the contamination to “keep it from migrating into the lower aquifer,” which is potential drinking water, he said.

Rather than remove the creosote, the EPA draft plan is to set up a treatment plant that will inject cement into the soil. The creosote will solidify with the concrete to keep it from spreading. “The treatment plant won’t withdraw it, but contain it,” he said.

The project consists of six design phases: road realignment, perimeter wall replacement, beach dredge and cap, wellfield replacement, thermal pilot test demolition and upland remedy. All of that is subject to funding, of course. “Superfund projects have been funded very well for design,” Moersen said. “We’re moving as fast as we can.”

Moersen said all 77 Superfund sites in Region 10 were ranked, and the one on BI was about sixth. It ranked that high due to erosion on the beach, sea-level rise and groundwater fluctuation. “It’s in competition for dollars,” Moersen said, adding he’s confident the money will come.

One of the most prominent features for the public is a construction wall that’s already been funded. Moersen said the hope is to start construction of that in 2024. Eventually, there is a vision of a walkway being built at the base of the wall next to the water.

Groundwater was the main concern about the project from councilmembers.

Moersen said the EPA is monitoring it, and not seeing any change. Even after work is done and the site is capped it will continue to be monitored. He added the risk would be bigger if someone lived there. But there is no fishing in Eagle Harbor, and they’d like to clean it up so such activities could be done there safely again.

Councilmember Michael Pollock asked how many years the fix is supposed to last. Moersen said 100 years. It could last longer, but that’s hard to model and project in a lab environment. “We’re using the best technology,” he said.

Mayor Joe Deets asked if this technology has been successfully used elsewhere. “Yes, it’s not new,” Moersen said.

He added that they don’t remove the creosote for a number of reasons. They don’t want to use heavy equipment along Eagle Harbor Drive. He noted there is a school bus stop there. Councilmember Kirsten Hytopoulos thanked EPA for listening to the community regarding trucks there. He also said if they dug it up it would just consume valuable landfill space.

Dredging will take place outside the wall where seawater is and capped with a clay-like material to keep creosote from seeping up.

Councilmember Clarence Moriwaki said he was part of a task force 20 years ago that dealt with the Wyckoff project. He said the feds sued the company, not for the BI site, but for others in Puget Sound that were major polluters. BI bought the property as part of the mitigation in 2004. “It’s been a long haul,” he said.

Wyckoff history

In yesteryear, the Wyckoff plant used to be a sense of pride for Bainbridge Island.

The original plant started in 1904, according to historical documents compiled by the city of BI and the parks district.

Creosote extended the life of timber, and wood from Wyckoff was used to build the Panama Canal, Great Northern Railroad and wharfs in San Francisco. At its height, it employed 120 people.

The Wyckoff family bought the plant in 1964, but it wasn’t until the early 1980s that the health and environmental problems with creosote came to light. Fish and shellfish were toxic, and cancer in humans was a concern.

The company spent about $15 million trying to clean up its soil and water pollution while keeping the plant open and workers employed. But in 1988 the EPA shut it down after a contentious meeting with 250 people in attendance.

The company went bankrupt in 1993, and the EPA took over groundwater extraction and treatment. The iconic smokestack came down in 1996.

The pump and treatment system wasn’t working well and was going to take 100 years or more for a cleanup, according to the EPA. So in 2002, they drilled 16 injection wells and seven extraction wells for a pilot thermal system for steam-enhanced extraction. About 370,000 gallons of contaminated water was removed, along with 100,000 gallons of oily chemicals. But the system wore out and work was stopped in 2004.

In 2001, now-Councilmember Clarence Moriwaki was on a task force to come up with a preferred alternative for the site. They decided on a park. In 2005, with money raised locally and from grants, $8 million was raised for the 50 acres that are now Pritchard Park and the Japanese Exclusion Memorial.

Moriwaki also chaired the Japanese American Memorial Committee, the Pritchard Park retreat in 2003 and Friends of Pritchard Park in 2003. Now state-Sen. Christine Rolfes was on the last two committees with him.

Meanwhile, the west end of Eagle Harbor also was polluted by mercury contamination from an old shipyard. No further cleanup is planned there.

In other news

Deets apologized for not following Parliamentary Procedure at a recently when the word “racist” was used during a meeting, and a councilmember called out “Point of Order.” Deets said he should have made a ruling or asked the council to vote on the situation. “Regrettably, none of that happened,” he said.

Deets went on to say if that happens again he would want the council to vote.

The mayor said courteous behavior is vital to the democratic process, and inflammatory language such as “racist” crosses that line. Moving forward, the larger issue is that councilmembers need to responsibly work together so those situations don’t arise, he said.

City manager Blair King added he appreciates how hard the council works.

An augur used for digging and what a column of cement and creosote will somewhat look like.

An augur used for digging and what a column of cement and creosote will somewhat look like.

The plant where creosote was used to extend the life of the wood.

The plant where creosote was used to extend the life of the wood.

The retaining wall will be built from east to west because that’s the order of the most need.

The retaining wall will be built from east to west because that’s the order of the most need.

The site is located to the southeast of Winslow.

The site is located to the southeast of Winslow.