School district undeveloped land contaminated by lead, mercury; Clark, IHS not affected

December 8, 2008

By Chantelle Lusebrink

New soil tests of the Issaquah School District’s 1.8-acre undeveloped property east of Clark Elementary School show high levels of contaminants, like lead, chromium and mercury.

But the district is in compliance with state regulations regarding the contaminated soils on the property, which is also adjacent to Issaquah High School.

District officials conducted the latest round of tests on the property, about 200 yards from Clark, after community members expressed concerns that children there and at Issaquah High are being exposed to lead.

“Anytime we receive concerns about any part of our operations, we take actions to address the issues and respond to whatever is required of us,” said Steve Crawford, director of capital projects for the district.

Similarly, there were questions regarding the district’s asbestos removal records at Clark. However, district officials are in full compliance with state and federal asbestos regulations, as indicated by the most recent asbestos inspection, in August 2006. The inspections are conducted every three years.

Rumors, concerns mount

For months, rumors have circulated that there may be asbestos at Clark and soil nearby may be contaminated.

Concerns started mounting after the district’s Boundary Review Committee developed its first recommendations, which moved several children from the Overdale Park community from Grand Ridge Elementary School to Clark.

On June 17, Dale Timmons, president of ARI Technologies, a company that specializes in hazardous waste destruction, and a parent in the Overdale Park community, began asking district officials for records indicating what toxic materials may be present at Clark.

Given his background, Timmons knew asbestos had probably been used during the school’s construction in 1950. At that time, asbestos was a common building material used in walls for insulation of pipes and below floors.

Timmons was also concerned about the undeveloped property of Clark and north of the Issaquah High ball fields, a former rifle range owned by the Issaquah Sportsman’s Club.

After looking at the district’s soil and asbestos documentation Aug. 11, Timmons said he had more questions.

His utmost concern was whether asbestos had been removed from Clark and whether contaminants from the property are making their way to Clark and the ball fields, where children play.

Ground contamination

The Sportsman’s Club purchased the range in 1928, but transferred the property to the city in 1936. The city transferred it to the school district about 1989. The club continued to operate the rifle range until about 1992, when the district built its ball fields.

The gun range was operated for more than 60 years and has left lead and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons — from early clay pigeons.

Repeated exposure to toxic metals, like those from lead and clay pigeons, have been linked to lower IQ scores, lead poisoning, slowed growth, hearing loss and behavioral problems, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

District officials knew the property’s soil was contaminated as early as 1998, when an environmental impact statement was conducted for the proposed Southeast Bypass.

“We knew about it because the bypass came right through our property,” Crawford said. “If the bypass was built, we would have had to deal with the soil and relocate the ball fields.”

However, tests weren’t conducted on the site until the district received a letter from the state Department of Ecology in 2000 that said it was going to be added to its suspected contaminated sites registry.

District officials, in conjunction with Public Health — Seattle & King County, conducted eight soil samples in December 2001. High levels of lead and arsenic were found in several samples from the middle of the former shooting range.

One high arsenic level was detected at 16 parts per million. The required level for clean up is 20 parts per million.

High levels of lead were found in three of the eight samples: two at 320 parts per million and one at 180 parts per million. The cleanup level for lead is 250 parts per million.

Officials ranked the site as a 4 on the hazardous sites registry list, said Hilary Karasz, a spokeswoman with the health department.

One represents the highest risk to human health; 5 represents the lowest.

“For example, the lead contaminants from the Tacoma Smelt Plume from 100 years of operations, which spewed lead and arsenic into the air, continually read over 1,000 parts per million,” Karasz said. “In some cases, like on Vashon-Maury Island, we’ve found areas with over 1,300 parts per million of lead. Of course, those are unoccupied properties.”

New soil tests done

After Timmons began asking questions, district officials commissioned another test of 14 soil samples from the area, done by Morse Environmental Inc. in Auburn. Results were returned Nov. 22.

The results from the most recent test and the tests conducted in 2001 are very similar.

“There is a presence of chromium and mercury in the sample set,” the report concluded, adding that their respective concentrations are below state standard for unrestricted land use.

The areas where the samples contained high concentrations of contaminants were in the middle of the undeveloped property, similar to the 2001 tests.

Lead amounts were generally found to range from less than 4 parts per million to about 28 parts per million, except one, which measured 460 parts per million, nearly double the state’s cleanup level. But the area where the highest level of lead was found is not on property used for educational purposes.

Chromium was detected in amounts ranging from 9.3 parts per million to 28 parts per million. The state’s cleanup requirement is 2,000 parts per million.

In addition, the laboratory tested the chromium samples to ensure it wasn’t an extremely hazardous form of the A metal called hexavalent chromium, typically associated with chrome-plating facilities.

“There was no hexavalent chromium in any of the samples,” Crawford said.

Arsenic levels were detected at less than 5 parts per million, far less than the 20 parts per million mandated for cleanup.

Elevated mercury levels were also found on the high school’s ball fields. Those ranged between .15 parts per million and .20 parts per million, well below that of the 2 parts per million mandated for cleanup.

Based on the topography of the site, the shallow ground water runoff likely goes to the northeast, not down to the ball fields or the schools’ play areas, according to the Morse Environmental report.

The new tests cost the district about $19,000.

If district officials develop the property for use later, they can put a soil cap on the property or remove the dirt completely, said Sara Niegowski, district communications director.

It is also likely The Sportsman’s Club and the city would need to help pay for the hazardous waste removal, according to documents from the district’s lawyers.

No real barrier to site

The undeveloped site is easily accessible to students, staff and community members and there isn’t a fence or no trespassing signs preventing access.

Walk the property and you’ll find beer cans, soda and water bottles, and chip bags. A tree house-like structure is also on the property.

“It tells me there is a lot of contamination in the area and there really aren’t any methods of preventing people from readily accessing it,” Timmons said. “I would not want my son going up to that area, where the contaminated samples are.

“He could bring the lead back on his shoes, and whatever he touches could be contaminated, and lead has devastating effects with repeated exposure,” he added. “I don’t think anyone should be up there.”

The state of asbestos

Asbestos is a harmful material, which when breathed can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma and other lung disorders that can be fatal, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry.

When Timmons requested asbestos documentation about Clark, several documents may have been incorrectly filled out. For instance, the documents stated that the district had removed 104,388 square feet of asbestos from Clark in 1995 and 1996.

However, quarterly documentation with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency showed no record of removal from the district during those time periods. However, the agency does have records indicating that asbestos was removed from the district’s main office at that time, which may indicate district employees improperly filled out the paperwork on Clark’s asbestos removal.

Asbestos was removed from Clark during its modernizations in 1997. There is still asbestos at Clark, but it is sealed off from staff members and students, Crawford said.

“Anything that is left is behind the walls or under the floors,” which is in line with regulations, Crawford said.

Additionally, district officials have records related to asbestos inspections at Clark, conducted every three years, as mandated by law. For the past 12 years, including its most recent inspection in 2006, Clark has passed.

Officials put safety first

District officials do everything they can to ensure the health and safety of its students, Niegowski said.

In addition to additional soil samples at Clark and maintaining an inspection schedule for asbestos with state authorities, district officials have also conducted several other tests, according to Crawford.

For instance, the district conducted water quality tests when concerns about lead pipes in school buildings surfaced. Morse Environmental and Laucks Testing Laboratories tested the water for copper and lead at Clark in June 2000. Those tests indicated that the water was safe.

District officials also recently conducted air quality tests at some schools to ensure there are no dangerous levels of mold or other contaminants.

Clark, IHS  not affected

They also took a building inventory and area analysis. The inventory for Clark was conducted in 2003 by Mahlum Architects of Seattle, which gave the building a score of 4 out of 4, commenting that, “Building makes positive contribution to educational environment.”Next steps

“While the district is within state regulations, there is an interest in making sure that people are not trespassing on the undeveloped property near Clark, which could include signs and a fence if it looks like they are warranted,” Niegowski said.

District officials have not determined what, if anything, needs to be done to modify it. However, they’ll do that within a few weeks, she said.

“Based on the initial site hazard assessment, had there been a need for immediate action, that would have been done,” said Larry Altose, a communications officer with Department of Ecology, regarding the 2001 tests. “In this case, I would say that the district is free to manage the site as it sees fit.”

District officials can send documentation to the department for review and help clarify what options they have with the Voluntary Cleanup Program and the Remedial Action Grants program, Altose said.

“At a minimum, they should prevent access to the site by children,” Timmons said.

However, he said he would also like the district to conduct a Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure test, which would make sure contaminants from the undeveloped property are not leaching into surface runoff water and contaminating Clark’s playground or Issaquah High’s ball fields.

“I saw there were some elevated lead levels down near the playground,” Timmons said.  “They weren’t as high as up above, but that makes me question the source of the contamination.”

Reach Reporter Chantelle Lusebrink at 392-6434, ext. 241, or  Comment on this story at

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