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Toxic Legacy: Boise's Burried Toxic Waste Past Means Hard Realities

Toxic drips create pollution plumes for generations


A cool, spring river flow rushes past Shannon Murray. A few walkers wander below the lip of the Greenbelt bordering the Boise State campus to find Murray's subsurface measuring equipment dotting the trails and sandy river beach just east of the Friendship Bridge. Some take a second glance but most continue on walking, fishing or throwing balls to their dogs in the river. Murray occasionally warns a dog and his owner not too come to close to the wires, probes and data boxes strewn across the canine playground--the equipment is pushing electricity into the ground, she cautions.

In an outdoor laboratory, Murray probes beyond the beauty of the urban oasis, looking under the river's edge to peer into a toxic legacy hidden just below the surface of side streams, river rocks and cottonwood trees.

Murray stands as a solo scientist along the Boise River, but her research puts her among a small army of young innovators to whom the nation turns in an effort to cleanse past toxic mistakes. The data Murray gleans from the earth padding the Boise River may one day help cleanse the land of a little-known subterranean pollution plume that started years ago with just one drip.

That drip joined thousands of others until they filled a bucket. When the bucket brimmed, it was dumped in a nearby storm drain in the parking lot of Albertsons on Broadway and Beacon streets in Boise, where those drips began a miles-long journey that continues today, under the Boise State campus toward the Boise River.

No one knows when the first drip started the journey--maybe 10, 15 or even 20 years ago. Scientists only know that it's a drip for the generations.

"Who knows how long it had been going on? It could have been going on for 10 years or four years. We don't know," said the late D. Michael Gregory, hazardous waste compliance manger with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.

The dry cleaners who started the drip on its underground journey didn't know that the bucket used to collect the liquid seeping from leaky cleaning machinery at Broadway Laundry contained 97 percent perchloroethylene, or PCE--a highly toxic carcinogen. It looked like water, they figured, so into the storm drain it went, creating one of the region's largest known underground pollution plumes that threatened groundwater and left acres of contaminated soil in its wake.

"It highlights just how fragile groundwater is," said Justin Hayes, program director with the Idaho Conservation League. "A couple of gallons can contaminate an entire aquifer."

The drip DEQ officials identified 10 years ago also stands as an example of how environmental degradation often happens: unseen and unnoticed.

"[Later business owners] did the same thing the previous owners did. They were told it was just water," Gregory said. "We're not sure who started it or how many people had done it over the years."

And the drips Murray concerns herself with today are hardly alone. The DEQ has identified at least four similar plumes throughout the valley--from a solvent plume in East Boise to PCE waste sites in Garden City, Nampa and near Boise Towne Square. But the exact number of buried Treasure Valley toxic waste sites remains largely a guess. Pollution plumes, spills and leaks can easily go unnoticed and unreported. Pollutants quickly vanish from sight, and DEQ officials say they don't have the resources or political authority to monitor and investigate every would-be polluter. There are only a handful of DEQ and EPA regulators out there to monitor thousands of chemicals.

More than 75,000 chemicals have seeped, leaked and leached into the nation's air, water and land either through accident or deliberate dumping, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Department of Environmental Quality public records report that Idaho alone generated 5,055 tons of hazardous waste in 2009--a toxic mix of radioactive materials, fuel, degreasers, solvents, paints and other discarded chemicals. These sometimes odorless, colorless pollutants often leave no immediate visible trace, making it easy for companies to illegally dump hazardous waste that would otherwise require expensive disposal.

While the nation decried the effects of pollution as it watched the Gulf of Mexico swell with crude oil from a leaking offshore British Petroleum oil well, communities from coast to coast quietly carried on with decades-long efforts to clean up our less visible toxic legacies.

American industries pump, dump and spill more than 4 billion pounds of pollutants into the environment every year, according to the EPA. This industrial dumping that's often aimed at boosting a bottom line has created more than 400,000 known hazardous waste sites in the United States.

The BP oil spill served as a stark and visible reminder of the effects of toxic spills, but the less visible events also leave a legacy.

"Most of these have been going on for a couple of decades," said Michael McCurdy, regional groundwater remediation manager with the DEQ.

"It's not an easy contaminate to clean up in the groundwater," McCurdy said of PCE spills. "It's a long, drawn-out process."

Cleanup takes creativity and innovation. During the BP oil spill, a new use for hair clippings was touted, which brought out inventors and investors hawking the latest oil-sucking idea. Clean up also requires new thinking, something the remediation of the plume under Boise State's campus and surrounding neighborhood might depend upon.

Murray--a doctoral candidate--probes the subsurface of the river bank with equipment that gives her a snapshot of how big the plume has grown and ideas of what it might take to cleanup the underground PCE pool. Her findings might help bring the plume down to size.

"I am looking for ways to image contaminates," Murray said, offering the most layman's explanation of her work.

Murray hopes to map the extent of the PCE flow and understand what might happen if PCE-eating microbes were introduced to the plume. This waste site, she notes, like other toxic spills, might depend on still-undiscovered knowledge for remediation.

"We can't really dig it out because it's below the water table," Murray explained. "If it were above the water table, a lot of times you can dig it out and fix it. But in this case, it's gone below the water table."

The soil surrounding the Albertsons parking lot drain where the chemicals were originally dumped was removed shortly after environmental officials identified the illegal disposal in 2000. But PCE sinks, and shortly after the chemicals hit the storm drain, they took a deep dive and started a northwestward flow. Testing wells installed in the surrounding neighborhood and across the campus give scientists some idea of the breadth of the plume that appears boarded by the Boise River to the north, University Drive to the south and Beacon Street to the east, but exact boundaries still remain unclear. The testing wells only tell scientists that the PCE made a long subterranean trek, almost reaching the Boise River.

"In general, these are higher than EPA standards--but not a lot higher," Murray said of the contaminate loads identified in well samples drawn from across campus and the neighborhood in July 2008.

According to records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, vapors from the plume and groundwater contamination do not pose a human health risk. A 2007 Department of Health and Welfare risk assessment of the spill found "no apparent public health hazard" to students, faculty or staff.

The report noted that, "although there is PCE and TCE [trichloroethylene] contamination in the groundwater and detectable PCE in the air of a few BSU buildings, the levels are low enough that if someone were to be exposed 40 hours per week [a typical work week] for 25 years, this exposure would not be expected to cause harmful health effects."

PCE accounts for 80 to 85 percent of fluids used in dry cleaning and is commonly used in textile mills and as a metal degreaser and rubber coating. It also has a range of uses as an additive to soap solvents, aerosols, inks, sealants, polishes, lubricants and silicones.

The effect of PCE on human health depends on how long a person comes in contact with the chemical. Short-term exposure to PCE fumes can cause neurological effects including dizziness, fatigue, headaches and unconsciousness. Long-term exposure can lead to memory loss, confusion, kidney and liver damage. Repeated exposure could cause cancer, according to the EPA.

Boise State aimed to keep the university community safe and informed about the plume, requesting pollution studies and holding informational open houses on campus, said Boise State spokesman Frank Zang.

"Because Boise State was concerned that vapor from the contaminated groundwater might get into the air of Boise State buildings, we asked the Bureau of Environmental Health to conduct indoor monitoring of the affected buildings," Zang said.

Tests were conducted at the university in 2003 and again in 2007. "In both instances the air test showed no dangers to the campus community," Zang said.

Still, Murray holds some reservations.

"People probably shouldn't be drinking out of their wells around here," she admitted.

Water drawn from public wells undergoes regular testing by water districts, which forward results to the DEQ. But residents who rely upon private wells are responsible for testing their own water.

DEQ officials said lowering the borderline PCE levels found in Boise State area test wells down could take decades and figuring out how was not Murray's first choice.

"I was pretty hesitant [to do the research] at first because I didn't want to be dealing with nasty chemicals. And I had a lot of concerns about how we could do lab experiments that were safe and followed the rules and that would actually be successful," Murray said. "So I spent about a year researching the type of materials I could use. It turns out that PCE--which is what I use in the lab most often--melts a lot of plastics. It doesn't work well with a lot of chemistry [equipment] that we would normally use. So it took me a long time to figure out how to contain this stuff in a safe manner."

Finding the right equipment was just the beginning. Murray originally thought that the introduction of anaerobic PCE-eating microbes might bring the plume down to size. But after she figured out how to safely characterize the plume, she discovered high concentrations of oxygen in the area--something that would make anaerobic digestion difficult.

"But there is also another microbe that degrades PCE under aerobic conditions. But in order to get them to degrade PCE, you have to introduce some other kinds of foodstuffs like toluene or ethanol," she said. "They actually eat that then they get rid of PCE as a kind of accident. So if we were to do that, we would have to pump water from deep and bring it to the subsurface and put it in bubblers and control how much other contaminate we're introducing and make sure we're introducing clean water back into the river. So that would be quite the expensive process."

Beyond equipment, oxygen and cost concerns, there is also the fact that PCE-killing microbes aren't Boise natives.

"Anytime you introduce a species into an area that it's not already from, you always have to be concerned with what's going to keep their population in check," Murray said.

State environmental officials don't have an estimate on the cleanup costs of the plume. Some work will be done for free, thanks to the efforts of student researchers such as Murray. But they do know that the people responsible for the pollution walked away from the mess without paying a single EPA fine.

"They went bankrupt, so we basically couldn't touch them," Gregory said.

Broadway Laundry is now under new ownership. Former property owners that leased out the land to the cleaners had accepted responsibility for the cleanup until they too went bankrupt. They, as well as the former owners of the site and laundry, could not be reached for comment or did not respond to Boise Weekly's request for an interview.

The current Broadway Laundry owner, Heather Kelley, works to ensure that the mistakes of previous owners are not repeated under her reign. She contracts her dry cleaning services out to another company now, eliminating the use of PCE on the premises.

"That's nasty stuff. I don't even want to be dealing with it." Kelley said.

The dry cleaning agent carries such toxic effects and environmental hazards that California began phasing out the chemical in 2008, and by 2023, dry cleaners that use PCE won't be permitted to operate in the state.

Idaho regulates the chemical under mandates that require the safe handling, storage and disposal of the chemical. But illegal dumping or use of the chemical or other hazardous materials isn't always easy to catch, environmental officials say. And even visible signs of pollution aren't always easy to spot.

When a sheen of oil slicked the surface of the Boise River near Americana Boulevard last spring, containment efforts kept the motor oil from spreading, but investigations by both the DEQ and the Ada County Highway District failed to yield a source of the pollution.

And often efforts to identify pollution remain hampered by politics and money. There just aren't enough regulators to closely monitor the slew of toxic chemicals handled and stored throughout the state, they say. And regulators don't always have the political authority to intervene when hazardous-materials handlers don't abide by the law.

"It's a hard thing to find because we don't have the political authority or the political will to knock on people's door," said Lisa Rowles, environmental hydrogeologist with the DEQ.

In Idaho, regulators can only intervene if there's evidence of illegal dumping and the responsible business consents to DEQ intervention by signing an order allowing the agency to conduct oversight and remediation. Most sign the order, Rowles said. But other states, such as California, give regulators broader authority to investigate potential violations.

"I came from California, where they have the power to say, 'You have to check.' And this state doesn't have that," Rowles said.

"We have other sites in Boise where we know there is PCE in the groundwater, and we're trying to find the source. But unless you have evidence to suggest that a dry cleaners, for instance, might have a release, it's very politically inappropriate to knock on their door and tell them they have to [test]," Rowles said.

"In the state of Idaho, it seems that everybody hates the regulators, and only if you're personally impacted, you say, 'Why didn't you do something?' So the politics in this state is [that] we don't want regulators and we don't want anyone telling us what to do. And I think that's the bigger problem," Rowles said.

"Regulations are often seen as burdensome, too expensive, the heavy hand of government," Hays said. "But they're vital to protecting drinking water in Idaho."

The sheer number of hazardous-waste handlers also makes oversight difficult.

Many neighborhoods and business districts are littered with toxic and hazardous material sites. Idaho sports roughly 3,013 toxic waste generation sites. Hundreds of those sites call Boise home.

Documents obtained by Boise Weekly through the Freedom of Information Act revealed 26 businesses and public buildings that use or hold hazardous materials in the 83702 zip code or downtown area alone--a number down from 60-plus in 2005. But as is the case at many of those sites, the waste is in small amounts or from things used every day.

Business that use toxic materials include printing shops, dry cleaners, gas stations and places that deal with neon sign mercury, solvents, pesticides and drugs among others.

"A battery repair shop is going to use some kind of solvent to clean their batteries," Gregory said.

Those waste-generating places include everything from big businesses like Simplot and Micron to mom and pop shops and medical facilities.

"Most manufacturing facilities will have to clean something up somewhere," he said. "Basically anything you manufacture you're going to have to clean up."

And if a business doesn't clean up, watchdogs step in--if they can catch the violator. They also aim to help the public understand the risks associated with a spill. After identifying the Broadway Laundry spill, DEQ officials notified neighbors, businesses and schools about the spill and cleanup efforts.

"Without a lot of understanding [a spill] can be a scary thing," Rowles said. "It doesn't need to scare people because we're trying to make sure people are protected. Our job is to protect the public."

While DEQ officials focus on safety, they admit that there are some environmental hazards they can't protect the public from, namely the ones that go unreported and unnoticed.

Violations can easily go unnoticed and polluters could slip through inspection gaps. More than nine downtown area businesses were cited for violations in recent years, but not all the violations were found during regular inspections. Some facilities are inspected twice a month; others may only be inspected every three to five years. After all, there are only so many inspectors and budgets only go so far, Gregory said.

Just 9.4 percent of hazardous-waste handlers were inspected in 2009. In 2008, 7.3 percent of handlers underwent inspections. So, can a company violate hazardous waste laws and slip past the watch of inspectors?

"That could happen," Gregory said. "There's that potential."

The Broadway Laundry highlighted that potential by passing DEQ inspections while illegally dumping PCE. The cleaners avoided the attention of inspectors by dumping the chemicals out of sight--several meters away from the facility in a parking lot drain.

"They didn't do what they said they were doing," Rowles said.

DEQ officials often rely on astute citizen watchdogs and complaints to catch pollution violations--as was the case with the Broadway Laundry. And some businesses will self-report when they accidently spill a hazardous chemical. But a number of toxic sites often are not identified until there's a transfer of property.

"When there's not a real estate transaction, there's not identification of a new problem," Rowles said.

Some companies would rather avoid future problems, accidental spills and oversight, so they're getting out of the toxic business altogether. Since 2000, 799 Idaho businesses have stopped using toxic chemicals and other materials. In 2005, 29,612 tons of hazardous waste were generated in Idaho. By 2006 that number dropped to 8,805 tons. In 2007 and 2008 just more than 7,000 tons of hazardous waste were generated in the state.

Some jumped on the eco-bandwagon in an effort to green up their businesses. Others, such as Broadway Laundry, started contracting services that depend on the use of toxic chemicals out to other businesses. Others made the move based on the bottom line.

"The cost of handling hazardous waste can be astronomical." Gregory said. "They decided it's cheaper to get out of regulating waste.

"You don't have to worry about your employees if they're not handling chemicals. This also lowers insurance rates."

Other expenses associated with handling toxic materials include ensuring the safe transport of the hazardous waste, approved storage of the waste, maintaining records of the waste, and legal disposal. Most recent citations in the 83702 area violated such laws, and at least one company was fined for sending their hazardous waste straight to the landfill.

The trend to move away from handling toxic waste reflects greener thinking, but Gregory said the toxic hazards passed down have roots in old thinking.

"Back in the '60s and before that, people didn't know--out of sight, out of mind. And so they dumped stuff in the ground and thought it wasn't bothering anybody." Gregory said. "And a lot of that thinking is still around. There are a lot of people who still have those same thoughts. They think, 'That's the way my dad did things, that's the way my grandfather did things, that's that way my great-grandfather did things.' That's the way they've been taught."

Murray's work may undo some of the damage from that thinking, but she admits it could take more than one generation.

"I want to graduate in two years, and it doesn't mean that we will actually do anything with this plume in two years," she said.

After that, she'll pass her knowledge on to a new crop of scholars. "I'll let some subsequent student carry out the process."