EPA, Ecology seek to clean up Freeman grain handling site

Matthew Weaver/Capital Press The Environmental Protection Agency and Washington Department of Ecology say chemicals formerly used at the Freeman, Wash., grain handling facility, pictured the morning of March 30, have gotten into the groundwater. They are considering plans to clean up the area.

FREEMAN, Wash. — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Washington Department of Ecology want to add a grain handling facility in Freeman, Wash., to a list of national clean-up priorities.

The agencies say the chemicals carbon tetrachloride and chloroform were found in soil at the facility and in groundwater collected from nearby wells, including one that is the water supply for the Freeman School District campus.

A water treatment system is keeping the school district’s water supply safe for drinking, according to EPA. The well serves the district’s primary, middle and high school.

The agencies want to list the facility under the federal Superfund program to clean up uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. Listing the facility would allow for a more comprehensive investigation, said Ken Marcy, who conducts site assessments for the EPA.

“How widespread is the soil contamination, are there other sources, how widespread is the water contamination?” Marcy said. “The response could vary widely depending on what they find.”

Marcy said the circumstances are common across the United States.

“It was a legal chemical when it was used,” said Ken Blakeman, general manager for CHS Primeland, owner of the facility, which is built on land owned by the Union Pacific Railroad. CHS Primeland leases the land from the railroad. “The way the EPA goes about it tends to scare people into thinking there is some ongoing contamination, which is absolutely not the case.”

Francisco Castillo, director of corporate relations and media for the railroad, said the company is evaluating its next steps, after receiving a letter from Ecology last month notifying it that it is potentially a liable party.

None of the EPA’s information identifies the source of the pollution, Blakeman said.

“This could have happened in the 1950s — we have no idea,” he said. “We also don’t know that it’s actually just at our site. It could be from fire extinguishers, solvents, neighboring properties. It could have come from the school’s own bus garage by improper disposing of solvents.”

Carbon tetrachloride was historically used as a fumigant in the grain handling facility, Marcy said. The chemical was outlawed in 1986, he said.

“My guess is this is from a historical application of a legal pesticide, but we found it in an area far away from the facility, (suggesting) that the area was contaminated not just from normal application, but from maybe spills or improper storage,” Marcy said.

Further investigation may reveal other sources, Marcy said.

Business at the facility has not been impacted, Blakeman said.

“It’s a seasonally used grain elevator,” he said. “Grain comes in, grain goes out. It’s no different from any elevator anywhere that you’d go by.”

It hasn’t yet been addressed whether it would fall to the grain company or to the railroad to address cleanup, Blakeman said. The company is working with all authorities, Blakeman said.

“We have an open door to them,” he said.

Brook Beeler, communication manager with Ecology in Spokane, said the department will move forward with cleanup whether the facility.

The department is working to determine who would be responsible, Beeler said.

Under state law, there’s no penalty associated with past practices, but Ecology can hold businesses or property owners responsible for investigation and cleanup of the pollution, Beeler said.

Facilities concerned about past use of the chemicals on their sites could collect their own samples, Marcy said.

Beeler said it’s “highly likely” that other grain facilities would have used the pesticide in the past.

“We’re only focused on this grain-handling facility located in Freeman,” she said.

Ecology will hold public meetings to answer questions, Beeler said. The department will study the extent of the contamination over the next year and identify potential cleanup actions. he public will comment on preferred cleanup actions.

Following a 60-day public comment period, the EPA will determine whether to list the site, Marcy said. A decision could come in six months at the earliest, he said.

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