Testing of Yakima County Soil Put on Hold Indefinitely - Dept. of Ecology says it's difficult to proceed when 'community is apprehensive'

Published in the Herald-Republic on Friday, August 9, 2002



The state Department of Ecology has put plans for lead and arsenic testing of Yakima County soil on indefinite hold.

Ecology Department officials in May stopped a plan to sample soil in Yakima County after some politicians and orchardists objected to the study, saying the specter of contaminated land could hurt the economy.

Now, the agency says the soil sampling may never take place.

"It's difficult to proceed when a community is apprehensive," said Ecology spokeswoman Caitlin Cormier.

The tests were planned as part of a statewide study on lead and arsenic contamination. The chemicals were used from the 1890s through the 1940s as a pesticide to control apple-eating moths.

Estimates compiled by the agency show many former orchards that have been developed into housing and other uses still contain toxic levels of the chemical. The agency planned to sample soils in as many as 100 locations countywide to determine how widespread the contamination is.

After the tests, the agency hoped to provide county and city officials with a method to determine which property faced contamination dangers, said Rick Roeder, toxic cleanup program site manager in the Ecology Department's Yakima office.

"All the sampling was focused on creating a tool on what's impacted and what's not," he said.

But the testing plan led to controversy.

Property owners feared their land would be branded as contaminated.

Orchard owners feared that publicity surrounding the testing could damage consumer confidence in apples.

There is no tie between lead and arsenic in soil and tainted fruit.

"I'm just relieved," said Rep. Jim Clements, a Selah Republican. "I never got a compass bearing on where the testing would lead."

Roeder said there's little doubt that some Yakima soil is contaminated.

Preliminary tests and estimates by the Ecology Department show scary numbers in several cases. As much as four times the level of lead and 20 times the level of arsenic considered safe under federal standards can be found in some former orchards around Yakima, the agency says.

Both chemicals are poisonous if ingested. Lead causes brain damage, and arsenic can cause cancer. Officials say children are at the most risk because the only common method of being poisoned is by eating dirt.

While the soil testing is on hold, other lead and arsenic related work remains ongoing. Ecology Department and other state agencies have joined together to assemble a plan for dealing with possible contamination, which is due later this year.


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