Lopez oil leak hazard

Concern over a property with contaminated soil has prompted residents to wonder if their water is safe.

In response, a letter from the Fisherman Bay Water Association released Feb. 1 stated their wells are being tested for benzene, a known carcinogen, and have tested negative.

Steve Cade, water quality manager of the association, said that public water systems are routinely checked for herbicides, pesticides, bacteria, lead, copper, radium and benzene. Customers had contacted the association with concerns because of ground contamination at the old Lopez Village Market from leaking fuel tanks which has still not been resolved since the tanks were removed six years ago.

The building was the home of Lopez Village Market for years, before becoming Island Body and Fitness and is now Paper, Scissors on the Rock. The property sits in the heart of Lopez Village.

The owners of the property began the process of removing the tanks in 2010 and signed up for Department of Ecology’s Voluntary Clean-Up Program in 2011, leaving the program in 2012 without finishing the cleanup, with some areas containing 633 times above the maximum approved amount  of benzene and 43 times above the allowable level of total petroleum hydrocarbons in the soil, according to documents from the Department of

Ecology. According to Mark Tompkins, director of San Juan County Health and Community Services, and Kyle Dodd, manager of San Juan County Environmental Health, the contamination is not handled by the county, and has been under the Washington Department of Ecology’s jurisdiction since the site was first identified as contaminated in 2010.

A history of contamination

The two leaky gas tanks were removed Aug. 25, 2010, according to a Whatcom Environmental report, one 2,000 gallon tank installed in 1987 and another 4,000 gallon tank installed in 1980.

The same report noted that the depth to groundwater is unknown, and that the surrounding soil tested above normal numbers according to Model Toxic Control Act unrestricted use levels for Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons, benzene, ethylbenzene and total xylenes from six samples taken August 2010.

According to a September 2011 report by Whatcom Environmental, the smaller pit was deemed cleaned after soil excavation and twelve samples were taken from the floor and walls of the pit in January 2011. Despite soil excavation, the larger pit was “not showing indications of decreasing contamination,” and no clean soil samples were collected from that tank.

In February 2011, sample pits were made on the property, and detected gasoline chemicals at least 13 feet below ground surface in amounts that exceeded the MTCA Method A cleanup criteria. The deepest sample found benzene 29 feet deep at 2.4 mg/kg, still above the .03 mg/kg allowable level for benzene. The vertical extent of contaminated soil is not known.

The owners left the Voluntary Clean-up Program in June 2012, after a January 2012 letter from Department of Ecology that said more steps needed to be taken to finish the cleanup. At this point, benzene, non-halogenated solvents and petroleum/gasoline are all found above appropriate levels in the soil under the asphalt parking lot.

The January 2012 letter from the Department of Ecology told the owners of the property that further action at the site was necessary, as there was concern about the contamination levels. The report found the maximum detected concentrations of total petroleum hydrocarbon to be at 1,300 mg/kg, well above the allowable levels of 30 mg/kg, and the benzene levels to be at 19 mg/kg, above the allowable .03 mg/kg.

“Part of the former Village Market building may be situated over the area of soil contamination,” the report reads. “The potential for vapor intrusion therefore exists, and a soil cleanup level protective of indoor air must be considered.”

The 2012 letter of further action repeated in numerous sections that more information was needed in order to determine what levels were suitable for the area, noting that a 65-foot deep water supply well was located nearby, prompting the concern from residents. The report could not determine what sort of threat the contamination posed to groundwater or off-site leakage.

What happens next?

According to DOE policy, because the site is on private property, it is the responsibility of the owners to clean up the contamination, and there are currently no available grants for private landowners to assist in their costs for cleanup even after personal or insurance funds have been exhausted.

“Unfortunately the regulations don’t stipulate when a cleanup must occur, thats why things like this can sit here for a long time,” said Donna Musa, regional site hazard assessment coordinator for Department of Ecology. “There are sites that came in to Department of Ecology in 1988 that still haven’t been cleaned.”

Musa said that property owners who enter the program often don’t know how extensive the cleanup will be, and only  begin to know when the excavation has begun. In this case, the owners exited the program after two years. Because the program they entered in is voluntary, there is no obligation for the owners to finish the contamination clean up.

“What really drives the clean ups for the last 10-15 years is real estate transactions,” Musa said. “Banks won’t loan money to people who are going to buy contaminated land.”

The owners have made no known moves to sell the property. For smaller-scale contamination like this, Musa said, the Department of Ecology rarely enforces a clean up because it does not pose an immediate threat to residents, and Ecology doesn’t have the time or resources. Musa said there are many situations like these all through the U.S. – old gas station leaks that have yet to be cleaned up thoroughly.

In June of 2015 Jamie Stephens, Lopez county councilmen and president of the Fisherman Bay Water Association, contacted Dodd and Tompkins at the county health department to see what progress had occurred with the site.

Dodd and Tompkins then reached out to the Department of Ecology to see what steps could be taken to resolve the contamination and did not receive a response. Dodd most recently contacted the department in January 2016 to find out what the next course of action is, and what Ecology’s plans are for the site. As of press time the county has not received a response.

“We as a county have been trying to find out information,” Stephens said about the contamination. “As part of Fisherman’s Bay Water Association we’ve informed our customers, and as a councilman I informed the Lopez Village Planning Committee. Other than that it’s back to the property owner and [The Department of] Ecology.”

The owners of the property did not respond to interview requests by press deadline.