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April 8, 1996

Hazardous waste cleanup under way at old U&I sugar beet processing plant in Toppenish

TOPPENISH - The old U&I sugar beet processing plant here is being cleaned up and refurbished through a collaborative effort involving several state agencies, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, local government and a private developer.

The longtime community eyesore and environmental mess - also known as the Pacific Aqua Tech site - became a public health hazard last year after vandals apparently opened large vats, flooding the grounds with an unknown sludge.

The resurrection of the industrial site is being hailed by public officials and the private sector as a win-win-win situation on all counts for everyone involved - taxpayers, the community and the environment. Current plans call for the reclaimed site to be developed as a paint solvent recycling center and an industrial park.

Meanwhile, the project's first-phase, top priority is eliminating the health hazard posed by asbestos on the 41-acre site. Operating under a special variance allowed by the state Department of Labor & Industries, crews will remove more than an estimated 100 tons of asbestos from the factory and surrounding buildings. The operation will involve "shrink-wrapping" the entire six-story building in plastic to ensure that asbestos-containing materials are not released into the air during removal.

Workers will be equipped with personal protective equipment to ensure they are not exposed to the highly hazardous asbestos materials.

Other hazards that must be removed before the site can be restored to commercial use include 750,000 used tires and a mysterious black sludge substance as well as large drums of acids, corrosives and other chemicals.

The project will include appropriate on-site monitoring by all regulating agencies. It estimated that up to six months will be required to complete the cleanup work.

Originally operated as a sugar beet processing plant, the factory was closed in the early 1970s. It was modified into a tire-recycling operation in the mid-1980s by an entrepreneur who planned to convert used tires into petroleum products. The plant was abandoned in 1994 when the owner fled the country after being cited for illegal asbestos removal and other environmental violations. The owner, still sought by authorities, left behind more than $53,000 in penalties and fines for the illicit asbestos removal.

The site sat empty and neglected until late last summer when the state Department of Ecology declared it an emergency area and a threat to public health after two 8,000-gallon tanks leaked an unknown amount of black sludge onto the site. It is believed the leaks occurred after vandals opened valves on the tanks.

The following agencies, individuals and offices are involved in the cleanup:

  • State Department of Labor & Industries
  • State Department of Ecology
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  • City of Toppenish
  • Yakima County Clean Air Authority
  • The Yakama Indian Nation
  • Welch Enterprises, Inc.

"This project is a winner for everyone involved," said Rudy Arellano, regional administrator for L&I in Yakima. "Taxpayers and public agencies will save an estimated $2 million in cleanup costs, the local community will benefit from the elimination of a serious public health hazard and the addition of a useful, commercial property, and Welch Enterprises will be able to capitalize on a profitable opportunity."

Edna Brooks-Pittman of the Toppenish Department of Community Development echoed Arellano's enthusiasm.

"We're very supportive of the Welch Enterprises plan for several reasons, including potential industrial job development, the removal of a significant health hazard and the positive addition the plant will make to the community's tax base."

Les Ornelas, director of the Yakima County Clean Air Authority, said the project clearly supports the agency's goal of securing and maintaining safe and healthful levels of air quality in Yakima County. He promised that the work would be monitored to ensure compliance with all federal, state and local air quality regulations.

EPA spokesman John Sainsbury said the agency has negotiated a draft agreement with Welch to expedite site cleanup. If terms of the agreement are carried out, Welch will receive some liability protection under federal law.

"This type of settlement is supported by the EPA to encourage private parties to clean up contaminated sites, eliminate health hazards and create economic benefits for the community," Sainsbury said.

"As EPA's funding for cleanup of abandoned hazardous waste sites becomes more limited, it is essential that private-sector funded cleanups be encouraged and supported by federal, tribal, state and local entities," he added.


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