The Cascade Pole cleanup site is located at the north end of the Port of Olympia. Beginning in the 1930s wood treating businesses operated at the site, most recently from 1957 to 1986, the Cascade Pole Company. Creosote was released to the environment during the plant’s operation.
The primary chemicals of concern are dioxin and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Dioxin, a family of chemicals better referred to as dioxin/furans, is the most biologically damaging non-radioactive substance known. Toxicity is measured in parts per trillion (ppt). Dioxin damages DNA and has been linked to things like cancer, birth defects and diabetes. It breaks down very slowly and accumulates in our bodies. Dioxin can be absorbed through the skin, inhaled and ingested in our food.
East Bay is also considered a degraded water body because of PCB contamination. This is especially important because PCBs are very much like dioxin and can not only add to its toxicity but magnify it. They’re both part of a category of chemicals known as heavy halogens, chemicals built around chlorine, bromine and fluorine.
The most common way we pick up dioxin is from our food. This is one reason that source control, preventing dioxin from entering the marine food web, is important for human health. People get very little dioxin via inhalation or dermal contact because most people are rarely exposed directly to dioxin. People who live and work around it are going to be at greater risk.
Toward the end of the 1980s a group of citizens entered the Cascade Pole site and painted skull and crossbones symbols on large tanks located there, drawing attention to the problem and bringing about a Federal Superfund designation. The Washington State Department of Ecology and Cascade Pole entered into a legal agreement in 1990 and the cleanup began. 35,000 cubic yards of sediment were removed, and the area was backfilled with clean. The dredged sediments were placed an engineered containment cell. A system was installed to pump and treat contaminated water. A steel sheet pile wall was constructed on the seaward side and the upland area was paved to form a large parking lot.
Unfortunately, in the 1980s, prior to Superfund recognition, the Port of Olympia dredged 1.1 million cubic yards of sediments from the adjoining area to create a marina. Those sediments were spread around the southern end of East Bay as fill. It’s no coincidence that the southern end of East Bay today has concentrations of dioxin ranging as high as 1000 to 4210 ppt. By comparison the USACE standard for open water disposal is 3.5 ppt. The standard for MTCA cleanup sites is 11 ppt. The only plausible source of dioxin entering East Bay is fill that was dredged from sediments adjoining Cascade Pole in the 1980s. No other viable hypothesis has been presented.
Before cleanup can begin, the sources of contamination need to be controlled. The Port of Olympia and the State of Washington are investing $4 million toward the identification and control of dioxin entering East Bay. The search for sources of contamination looks toward shore but ends there because the shore in that area belongs to the City and the City has no interest in cooperating.
Restoring the health of East Bay will be largely a matter of restoring physical parameters. Today Moxlie Creek runs through a half mile long culvert and empties into a bay that’s been dredged to an unnatural depth and it’s banks have been filled and armored with rock. It bears little resemblance to what it once was.
All life in the sea depends on plankton. Habitat for phytoplankton is defined as the “photic zone”, the area of water penetrated by light. There is no light in a pipe, hence no plankton. Plankton function best in an estuary with persistent circulation patterns in the presence of abundant sunlight and oxygen. Tide flats are one of nature’s perfect designs. The Estuary of Moxlie Creek can only be fixed. It can’t be moved or remediated elsewhere.
The Port meanwhile is moving forward with development of the historic estuary. Developer Walker John is planning to build 85 market rate housing units on the western half of 4.5 acres of land adjoining State Ave and Chestnut, the only area available for intertidal estuary restoration. Developing any portion of the site would also pose risks to occupants if a real cleanup was undertaken. Nobody wants to look out their window at people in moon suits working down in a big hole.
East Bay is federally classified as a 303(d) degraded water body. In addition to dioxin, PAHs and PCBs, there is too much nitrogen and too little dissolved oxygen. It’s just about a sick as a water body could be. This makes it a good candidate for outside funding. Money is available from federal sources such as the National Estuary Program and state and non-governmental organizations. These grants are competitive and based on costs and benefits. They go for work that’s complete and not piecemeal and to applicants that haven’t demonstrated a lack of commitment by giving away opportunities.
To offer both restoration and cleanup is golden. Sadly, Olympia prefers to develop in sensitive areas and cleanup as development proceeds. It’s a destructive, expensive strategy.