Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Myth of the Toxic Lagoon: Much Ado About Nothing

ECY sampling locations, 2001 (click to enlarge).
We've all heard the rumors. Trees die at Kah Tai because of toxins. The park is unsafe - it's just toxic dredge spoils. The lagoon is contaminated by - pick your source: a former auto repair shop, a former lumber yard, an old wire and nail company, trains dumping old batteries off the trestles.

All those rumors are based on a curious primary source - a single 1986 heavy metals study performed at the request of the Port of Port Townsend by a group of Shoreline Community College students. The students analysed samples from the lagoon and the boatyard. But what they did not sample was the park uplands.

When fragments of the 1986 report were uncovered by City staff in 2000, there was no map with the data. It wasn't clear where the samples were collected. City staff sent the disjointed information they did have to the State Department of Health (DOH). DOH staff did a preliminary evaluation of that information and in early 2001 recommended further sampling to determine if the park uplands were indeed contaminated. In 2001, the State Department of Ecology (ECY) prepared a sampling protocol and planned a rapid response. Locally, it was suggested in the media that remediation would be cheaper if the uplands were used for industry as contamination standards were less stringent than for a park.

And then, the record went silent. Calls to DOH suggested that they hadn't followed up. Were samples taken? It wasn't clear. People moved on. The park's reputation remained clouded. Local media were quick to leap at the contamination story, but not so agile at following it to the truth.

In March 2012, a complete copy of the 1986 report was unearthed in the archives maintained by the Friends of Kah Tai. It contained a sampling map. No samples had been taken from the park uplands by the college students. The 'serious' cadmium contamination consisted of a single, unreplicated sample taken in a corner of the lagoon itself, and that concentration was notable against a freshwater background, but not against seawater. The lagoon is brackish.

Emails to DOH brought back copies of the same preliminary 2001 reports and recommendations, plus one new document - a list of samples collected in 2001 by ECY.

ECY responded: there's nothing here at headquarters. Maybe in our southwest archives facility?

SW ECY responded: there's a two inch pile of documents in the archives; do you really want copies of all of it?

The summary of the full report states, "...the Kah Tai Lagoon site does not pose a threat to human health or environment." No further action was advised. The full report demonstrates that Kah Tai Lagoon Nature Park uplands are not contaminated by heavy metals or anything else measured by DOH or ECY. Modern analytical methods show no contamination of human or ecological significance anywhere in the lagoon, wetlands or uplands. Another urban myth bites the dust.

Friday, March 9, 2012

and the work continues

late winter (2012) at Kah Tai. Photo by J Jaman
In 1985, a staff member of the Burke Museum was asked to comment on a shoreline variance permit request for the development of Kah Tai Lagoon Nature Park.  Dr. Dennis R. Paulson, Affiliate Curator, examined the vegetation zone management plan and found it 'conceptually valid'. He expressed considerable familiarity with Kah Tai's unique history and with the difficulties of 'planning habitat management for wildlife and for educational purposes'.

He concluded his 31 July 1985 comment to the Jefferson-Port Townsend Shoreline Management Advisory Commission:

"It will be very important to selectively remove plants from and add them to the site, as it is developed, both on a species and an individual basis, and I think the plans to accomplish this are in agreement with the stated permit goals. I am pleased to see such an enlightened treatment of an area that could easily have been discarded as a weedbed of no value to the community or, conversely, developed for active recreational use with no regard for its natural value."

Nearly 30 years later, the work continues. On 25 February 2012, 50 more native trees and shrubs were planted at Kah Tai, using as guidance the twelve-zone vegetation plan reviewed by Dr. Paulson. Nearly 30 years later, he is described online as an 'internationally respected ornithologist and former director of the Slater Museum of Natural History'. The PT Leader press release for that planting event, as well as an interesting (and classically Port Townsend) thread of comments, can be found here.