State to Test Soil for Poisons; Politicians, Farmers Not Happy

Published in the Herald-Republic on Sunday, April 21, 2002

In a move that angers local politicians and worries farmers, the state will start testing Yakima Valley soil this summer for arsenic and lead content.

It's the first large-scale study in Central Washington to determine what pollution remains from pesticides used on orchards a half-century ago. At least 100 samples of Yakima County soil will be tested.

The state Department of Ecology is running the tests, to be conducted on residential, commercial and public property that used to be orchards.

The agency doesn't know what will come after the testing, but possibilities range from a widespread cleanup to sticking to the status quo.

"That's one of the things we're working on determining," said Caitlin Cormier, a spokeswoman for the agency in Olympia.

Current orchards won't be tested because they fall under agriculture exemptions to the state's Model Toxic Control Act.

The testing plan has left politicians with visions of the state digging up private lawns, and has left the apple industry with nightmares that rival the Alar scare of 1989.

The apple industry worries that any study mentioning both orchards and arsenic in the same sentence could cost them millions of dollars in lost fruit sales.

"What concerns me is the potential economic damage the department can do to the state's farming communities by creating a food-safety scare by chasing this phantom issue," Selah Republican Rep. Jim Clements wrote in a letter to the Ecology Department.

Clements wants the testing halted.

He has already won a delay. Ecology was set to send letters to 100 Yakima County property owners, asking their permission for soil samples, but the agency has put that on hold for at least the next few weeks.


THERE'S REASON for Clements' worries.

Preliminary tests already conducted by the agency show contamination. Dirt from former orchard sites around Yakima contained 10 times the amount of arsenic considered safe under federal guidelines and four times the safe level of lead.

Still, Cormier said she doesn't expect the state to mandate cleanup based on the study.

"There's not going to be people in space suits coming to your home," she said.

Cleanup is now a reality for developers and municipalities when high levels of contamination are found.

Tests of Yakima's Kissel Park have led to a massive ongoing cleanup effort. Workers resurfaced the 17-acre site to bury contaminated soil and will cover the worst soil with parking lots and tennis courts, said Yakima's public works director, Chris Waarvick.

"We don't want kids playing in contaminated soil," he said.

Overexposure to lead can cause brain defects, costing victims IQ points. The more lead, the worse the test scores, health authorities say. Arsenic is best known as an outright poison, but overexposure to smaller, nonlethal doses can cause cancer.

Yakima's Norm Hyatt, whose Hyatt Corp. owns health-care facilities around the state, has voluntarily cleaned up two Yakima sites where contamination was found before nursing homes were constructed.

"It's a good investment," he said. "You want that stuff cleaned up."

Hyatt didn't want to worry about nursing home patients coming into contact with lead and arsenic in the soil.

"We like to sleep at night," he said.

Cormier says her agency isn't out to scare people, but it does want to know how much pesticide residue is in back yards, school yards and other places where kids play in dirt.

"Maybe the problem is not as bad as we think," she said.


MOST DEVELOPED land in the western Yakima Valley used to be orchard land and may be tainted by arsenic and lead, she said.

Arsenate of lead's legacy in the Yakima Valley started in the 19th century. Farmers needed to control apple's biggest enemy, the codling moth. The best pesticide available was a byproduct of copper smelters, a white powder that contained lead and arsenic.

The chemical compound was mixed with water and sprayed on trees and fruit.

"We had to spray over and over again, " said Selah's Marvin Sundquist, a longtime orchardist who applied the pesticide as a young man. "You had to coat every square millimeter."

Back then, farmers sprayed chemicals until orchards looked like displays of flocked Christmas trees. Runoff from the spraying hit the dirt, where the chemicals have remained for decades.

But, both then and now, few believe the chemical residue hurts people. Studies have shown that apples and other fruit don't contain residue from the pesticide, which hasn't been used since the 1940s.

Yakima County Health District Administrator Dennis Klukan says he's seen no signs that indicate anyone has ever gotten sick from arsenate of lead residue in dirt.

Sundquist says he remembers practically bathing in the stuff -- clothes soaked by the spray as he and his family battled the moth.

"I have never heard of anyone getting sick," he said.

A top expert on toxic soil, University of Washington environmental science professor John Kissel, said the only common way for people to wind up with the arsenic and lead in their bodies from exposure to contaminated soil is simple -- eating dirt.

"Exposure is heavily dependent on human behavior," Kissel said.


STILL, PEOPLE ARE living closer than ever to the tainted soil. As towns have expanded, developers have uprooted orchards and built suburbs on the land.

Hundreds of houses around Yakima sit atop old orchards.

And that makes the new study scary for Denise Clark, a real estate agent who works for Heritage Brokers in Yakima. A state study could make it look like much of the residential land in the Valley contains undesirable chemicals, Clark said.

"It's kind of like jumping the gun and putting a red flag out," she said.

For Miles Kohl with the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association, the latest study brings back bad memories of the Alar scare.

In 1989, CBS' "60 Minutes" ran a story that equated the chemical Alar, commonly used on apples, with cancer.

Later, apple growers claimed they lost as much as $140 million in sales after widespread public panic led to a sharp decline in apple sales.

Kohl said it could happen again, only this time it would be a lead-and-arsenic scare.

"When a governmental agency takes it upon themselves to study these issues, they don't take into account the effects of calling growing land elevated in lead and arsenic," he said. "You can cause mass panic based on very poor information."

Kohl wants the study stopped.

So does Clements.

"They don't have a definitive plan on what they want to do," Clements said.

Another Valley lawmaker, Granger Republican Rep. Bruce Chandler, voiced similar concerns.

"We're concerned about this being an open-ended expedition," he said.

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