Port to excavate toxic gas station site in Westport

$2.4M cleanup project will demolish store and fueling station, scoop up 40-year-old gas spill

The Port of Grays Harbor will soon begin cleanup of a toxic site in Westport where 2,000 gallons of gasoline leached into sandy soils of the south beach peninsula nearly 40 years ago.

Following the demolition and removal of a convenience store on North Montesano Street — the Hungry Whale Grocery — the port will excavate and dispose of 5,200 cubic yards — or 350 large dump trucks worth — of toxic soil, then pump out exposed groundwater, both of which carry higher levels of petroleum and metal contaminants than the state’s cleanup threshold. Those actions are detailed in an agreed enforcement order with the Department of Ecology signed last year.

In May, the port signed a $1.8 million contract with Anderson Environmental Contracting to complete the work. That amount will be covered with a grant from Ecology, and remaining project costs — $600,000 — will be paid for by the port.

On Monday, contractors dug several test pits to identify areas of high contamination, or if any chunks of ground appear to be clean. Excavation is scheduled to begin in August and last six to eight weeks, said Randy Lewis, director of health, safety and environment with the Port of Grays Harbor. Crews will then backfill the hole with fresh soil, and the lot will be slated for redevelopment.

The cleanup comes after three decades of monitoring and testing of the site by Ecology that included several cleanup attempts. On a recent tour of the site, provided by Twin Harbors Waterkeepers, Lewis said the site poses “no direct threat to human health,” but Ecology’s investigations found that a “significant amount of contamination needs to be cleaned up.”

“There’s enough of it there it will be around long enough, and in enough concentration, that if we don’t get it out of there now, it’s only a matter of time until somebody digs into the wrong thing, somebody does the wrong thing, or it just finally works its way through and finally comes out somewhere else,” Lewis said.

Regular inspections of the Hungry Whale’s fueling system and underground storage tanks have found the system has not leaked additional contaminants since the initial release, said Andy Smith, Ecology’s Hungry Whale site manager, in an email.

The state sometimes ranks hazardous sites based on their potential of a threat to human health and the environment. On a ranking scale from one to five, with one being the highest, or most threatening rank, Ecology gave the Hungry Whale site a two.

Situated near the northeastern edge of the Westport peninsula, the spill site is three quarters of a mile from several city of Westport drinking water wells, and water from the Grays Harbor estuary, plus acres of wetlands, are a few blocks away. But all have remained free — at least at detectable levels — from gasoline pollution, Lewis said.

Ecology’s description of the site states the soil is contaminated with petroleum, and contains chemicals benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene. Exposure could likely happen in two ways: touching, or accidentally eating, contaminated soil after digging or working with earth-moving equipment, and if a contaminated groundwater plume seeps into soil excavations, according to Ecology.

Cleanup during late summer means the groundwater table will be at its lowest point, hopefully allowing crews to steer clear of the toxic groundwater plume, Lewis said.

But the exact location of the contamination, Lewis said, is unclear. Gas sunk through thin, sandy soils to a depth of 14 feet. It also bubbled outward, crawling underneath the store’s structure and nearby Montesano Street.

“It would be great if a spill would just sit there and form a nice square and you’ve got everything,” Lewis said. “What this site looks like underground appears to be like an amoeba, it’s just spread out here and there.”

Lewis said that shape makes it “impossible to get every bit” of gasoline — the port won’t excavate underneath Montesano Street, for example. Areas with an asphalt or concrete surface reduce chances of contamination, according to Ecology.

All the soil will be taken off site, and further tests will determine if the toxicity requires disposal in a toxic-permitted landfill. Contaminated groundwater water will be pumped out and treated.

Past cleanup attempts

Although not for much longer, the Hungry Whale sits on a piece of land the port took ownership of in the 1940s, following use by the federal government during WWII, Lewis said. Until it closed down recently, the business was privately owned and operated, and has changed hands several times since the initial spill.

The port first leased the land in 1977, and a gas station and convenience store was built on the corner of Montesano Street and Wilson Avenue, the eastern section of the port’s 23 acres. Construction included several storage tanks buried in the sand.

In 1985, those tanks — and pipes that delivered fuel to dispensers on the surface — leaked, and about 2,000 gallons of gasoline were released into surrounding soils, according to Lewis.

According to Ecology’s website, the agency confirmed contamination there in 1990, and a year later an investigation found levels of toxins in soil and groundwater that were above the state’s threshold for cleanup levels. When two small underground tanks were removed, a “thin layer of free product was found to be floating on the surface of the water that had collected in one of the tank excavations,” Ecology wrote in one report.

Between the date of the spill and Ecology’s first testing, the state passed the Model Toxics Control Act, which was intended to make cleanups more permanent and broaden public participation.

Under the MTCA, the port, as the owner of the land, became the party responsible for cleanup. By imposing a tax on petroleum and other hazardous substances, MCTA provides funds for cleanup action, such as the grant the port received to take care of the Hungry Whale site.

The port first took a stab at removing the gasoline through a system called sparging — wells injected oxygen into contaminated soils and water, vaporizing and later removing them. It was successful at first, removing hundreds of gallons of gas, according to Ecology, but further testing showed contamination returned and persisted above state cleanup levels.

Lewis, a former employee with the city of Westport, recalled when a group of workers opened up a nearby culvert to reveal a thin layer of gasoline floating on the water. It was enough to prompt the men to jump backward, fearing the flammable gas would light up. Ecology states 400 gallons of gas were ultimately removed from an exposed culvert in 2005.

The process dragged on as each attempted cleanup required new feasibility studies and site assessments, said Smith, the site manager. Ecology created another cleanup plan in 2011, but agreed to hold off until 2020 — the extent of the Hungry Whale’s lease with the port — to avoid shutting the business down, according to Lewis.

A feasibility study presented several options for cleanup, but excavating soils was found as the action most compliant with the MCTA, which emphasizes permanent solutions. The final cleanup order was then signed last August after a period of public engagement.

The post-toxic era

The Hungry Whale Grocery store was a popular stop for Westport, especially fisherman, supplying licenses, bait, equipment, a hot deli and gas. The business lies within the Port of Grays Harbor’s Westport Marina district, an area managed by Molly Bold. Bold said no business plans have been determined for future development of the property.

“Our priority now is to complete the cleanup project and then go from there,” Bold said.

The port’s board of commissioners would ultimately make the decision about the previously-contaminated land’s next use.

After cleanup, the port will file an environmental covenant with the county, which will likely restrict groundwater use at the site, according to Ecology. It’s unclear how much gasoline remnant might be left over after cleanup, and ultimately that will determine if any further action is necessary. During the covenant, Ecology will perform toxin tests at the site every five years.

Lewis hopes any remnants will be faint enough to disappear in the next 10 years. Through a process called natural attenuation, a common tactic for pollution cleanup, tiny organisms will begin to devour contaminate particles, while other traces dilute to low concentrations, or evaporate and escape.

Since the Model Toxics Control Act was introduced in 1989, Ecology states, it has funded and authorized 7,700 toxic cleanups, about half of the 14,000 identified sites. At the same time, 200-300 new sites are reported across the state each year.

Ecology’s website shows 141 contaminated sites in Grays Harbor County are either awaiting or in the process of cleanup. Another 134 contaminated sites have been reduced to toxic levels below the state’s threshold, and now require “no further action.”

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or clayton.franke@thedailyworld.com.