Sampling Expected to Yield Answers on Budd Inlet Dioxin Levels

By John Dodge, March 17, 2013, The Olympian

Some time this summer, we should have a detailed picture of dioxin contamination in the lower Budd Inlet marine sediments.

Part of me wants to say: “What’s taken so long?” Widespread dioxin contamination was first discovered on the Olympia waterfront a full six years ago during sediment sampling conducted by the Port of Olympia in advance of a scheduled dredging project for the navigation channel and marine terminal shipping berths at the port docks.

Another part of me wants to say: “Finally, some progress toward the eventual cleanup of dioxin-tainted sediments.”

The term “dioxin” refers to a family of chemical compounds that persist and accumulate in the environment, and are toxic to all life. They’re generated by industrial processes, wood-burning, vehicle exhaust — even cigarette smoke. Dioxins are unwanted, but they are everywhere.

Earlier this week, a contractor hired by the Port of Olympia grabbed samples from zero to 16 feet deep in the sediments all around the port peninsula, more than 100 samples in all to test for dioxin and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) another ubiquitous, toxic chemical that persists in the environment.

Now those samples are off to the laboratory for testing, part of a $2 million project designed to move closer to a decision on how best to restore health to the lower Budd Inlet marine ecosystem.

The port took on the project as part of an agreed order with the state Department of Ecology, first signed in 2008 and amended for the latest work in January 2012.

Notice how time moves slowly on complex environmental cleanups, especially in the midst of an economic recession?

But port officials can’t afford for the status quo to drag on much longer. It’s been 30 years since that last significant dredging work to accommodate cargo ship traffic in lower Budd Inlet. Sediments flowing down the Deschutes River into Capitol Lake and on into lower Budd Inlet have reduced water depths in the navigation channel. It makes it anywhere from difficult to impossible for some cargo ships to call on the port.

Clearly, the port has a vested economic interest in reviving the dredging project that was derailed six years ago. But port officials also say it’s the right thing to do for environmental reasons.

“Nobody else is going to do this,” Port Executive Director Ed Galligan said Friday in an interview at the port office near the marine terminals, an office all but dwarfed these days by the hustle and bustle in the cargo yard and on the docks. “The good news is: It’s getting done.”

What to do with the test results will be the tricky part. Ecology must decide how much of the cleanup is the responsibility of the modern-day port and how much is due to past industrial practices on the port peninsula, including the former Cascade Pole wood-preserving plant at the tip of the port peninsula.

Complicating the job of assigning cleanup duties are the more than 30 stormwater outfalls and small streams that flow into lower Budd Inlet from Olympia’s east side and west side and downtown area. All those water discharges could be past and present conduits for pollution.

Oh, one other thing: There’s no precise cleanup standard yet for marine sediments fouled by dioxin.

Stay tuned. Budd Inlet dioxin cleanup is about to get more interesting.

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