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.

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