By Rachel Alexander, The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants a grain elevator in Freeman listed as a Superfund site to remove high levels of a toxic pesticide that's leeching into groundwater.
The EPA said it has discovered carbon tetrachloride and chloroform in the soil at the Cenex Harvest States grain handling facility off state Highway 27 south of Spokane. Built in 1955, the site was originally owned by Rockford Grain Growers, an agricultural cooperative. It houses an elevator and 13 grain silos, and sits just a few feet from the railroad tracks that pass through town. Behind the silos, the ground is wet and swampy, covered with deer tracks.
The Freeman School District campus sits across the highway, along with a gas station and small store. Aside from that, the closest town is Rockford, a few miles down the highway.
According to a 2014 EPA report, Rockford Grain Growers sold the elevator to Cenex Harvest States in 1993. The land it sits on belongs to the Union Pacific Railroad.
Cenex disputes the EPA's determination that the chemicals are coming from the elevator.
"Sampling indicates that our property is not the source of the substance referenced in the EPA filing," Lani Jordan, a Cenex spokeswoman, said in an email. "We were made aware of the EPA filing (Tuesday) and will be investigating the details with the intention of responding during the 60-day comment period."
Carbon tetrachloride was commonly used to fumigate grain starting in the early 1900s until its use as a pesticide was banned in 1986. Long-term exposure to the chemical can result in liver, kidney and nervous system damage, according to the EPA's website.
Though little research has been done on its cancer-causing effects in humans, it's considered a probable human carcinogen, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"If it gets into soil or groundwater it has staying powers," said Ken Marcy, the Freeman site manager for the EPA.
The EPA site report says the current operator isn't known to have applied carbon tetrachloride, since the chemical was banned after it bought the facility. But it's probable the chemical was applied earlier in the elevator's operation.
"We don't know exactly when it was applied. We just know it's there," Marcy said.
Chloroform also was used as a fumigant in the past, according to the EPA website.
Concerns over contamination in Freeman started in 2008, when routine monitoring of the Freeman School District's well turned up levels of carbon tetrachloride higher than the EPA-allowed threshold for human drinking water. The EPA limit is 5 micrograms (one-millionth of 1 gram) per liter of water; the well water had 7.78 micrograms per liter.
The chemical was first detected in the district well in 2001 but was present at concentrations the EPA considers safe.
Ongoing measurement showed average contamination levels stayed within EPA guidelines for several more years. But by 2012, three measurements showed the carbon tetrachloride levels were too high. That's when the district took action.
Superintendent Randy Russell said the district did a feasibility study with a Department of Ecology grant to figure out a course of action. They then paid to install a water treatment system in August 2013, using district and state funds, and did outreach to make sure the district's 870 students and their families were aware of the issue.
"We're confident right now that the students and staff haven't been in danger, that they weren't in danger," said Patrick Cabbage, the Freeman site manager for the Washington Department of Ecology.
Russell said the treatment system has been working, but he'd like to see a longer-term solution to clean up the source of the pollution.
"We've done our part to take care of the drinking water at Freeman. This is an issue off of our campus that's come onto our campus," he said.
While the school district was starting to treat its water, environmental agencies were trying to understand why the well was polluted.
"Through that process we started looking at, well, what could the potential sources be?" said Ken Marcy, the Freeman site manager for the EPA.
Follow-up studies in 2013 identified the grain elevator as the most likely source of the pollution. An EPA-commissioned study in 2014 sampled the soil and found levels of carbon tetrachloride 20 times the EPA maximum, Marcy said.
The EPA's Superfund program was created to clean up abandoned hazardous waste sites. There are currently 11 active Superfund sites in Spokane County, including the Kaiser Aluminum Mead Works, and four waste sites at Fairchild Air Force Base.
Whether the Freeman elevator ends up on the list or not, the state Department of Ecology will proceed with cleaning it up. Cabbage said that process starts with identifying parties who might be liable for contamination, like former site owners or operators.
That work also includes determining the extent of the contamination. The elevator sits in a rural area, so Marcy said it's unlikely anyone other than the school district has been impacted.
Listing the site as a Superfund site would allow federal funds to be used for cleanup if a liable party can't be identified.
The EPA's proposed listing is now open for public comment, with more information available on the EPA website. A final decision is expected in about six months.