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Originally published September 9, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 9, 2007 at 2:10 AM

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Some light-rail tunnel debris polluted

For several months back in 2005, Travis Long played dirt detective. In his Honda Civic, the earnest 20-year-old staked out Sound Transit's...

Seattle Times staff reporters

For several months back in 2005, Travis Long played dirt detective.

In his Honda Civic, the earnest 20-year-old staked out Sound Transit's huge tunneling project through Seattle's Beacon Hill, and he put the tail on dump trucks as they drove off with loads of muck hauled up from underground. When they got to their dumpsites miles away, Long snapped pictures and secreted off samples of the mud.

Long was investigating on behalf of his employer — Wm. Dickson of Tacoma, a firm that runs a private dumpsite for construction debris. Eventually, his amateur sleuthing helped uncover a dirty side to the transit agency's light-rail project: Tons of mud mixed with a caustic grout material were winding up in gravel pits and dumps where they weren't supposed to go.

The mistakes could cost Sound Transit more than $2 million and forced its contractor, Obayashi, and one of the dump operators to clean up the messes at sites in King and Pierce counties. Legal fights are brewing over who is going to pick up the bills.

The caustic-grout dumping is one of several pollution problems that have troubled the light-rail project.

In the past year, the state Ecology Department has fined Sound Transit $145,000 for repeatedly letting muddy stormwater run off light-rail construction sites into nearby streams and storm drains. The transit agency itself reported more than 250 stormwater violations between 2004 and mid-2006, records show.

Waste too toxic

The caustic-mud problem first emerged in December 2004, shortly after work began on the Beacon Hill tunnel. An Ecology inspector found water at the Dickson landfill that was too caustic.

Such landfills are regulated by limits on the alkalinity of the dirt and debris they accept, because the waste can find its way into nearby streams and hurt fish and other animals. Such waste can also cause toxic metals to leach into the water.

After the state inspection, Dickson traced the problem to debris coming from the tunnel project. Dickson officials say they had been led to believe the loads from Beacon Hill would contain just dirt and clay, nothing contaminated.

Dickson discovered the contamination was coming from a concretelike substance called jet grout, used to help solidify the dirt around vertical shafts that lead from the top of Beacon Hill down to the tunnel. Jet grout is highly alkaline, and it wound up mixed with dirt and water dug from the shafts.

At least one load of the slurry brought to Dickson was caustic enough to be classified as hazardous waste.

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Ecology told Dickson to stop accepting the muck and to clean up the existing mess, which Dickson says cost the firm more than $300,000.

Angered by the situation, Dickson officials sent Long to follow Sound Transit trucks and find out where the muck was going, since it no longer came to them. Dickson informed Ecology that the grout-laden mud was being unloaded at other sites.

Regulators alerted Sound Transit. Eventually, Sound Transit told Obayashi, the Beacon Hill tunnel contractor, to clean up nearly 60,000 cubic yards of dirt and debris from a sand mine in Maple Valley and to scour two other sites, one in Maple Valley and one near Puyallup, where a smaller amount of mud was dumped.

The cleanup at the sand mine alone topped $2.4 million, according to a claim Obayashi has filed with Sound Transit.

Sound Transit maintains it was Obayashi's duty to ensure the contaminated mix was disposed of properly, said its spokesman Bruce Gray. But in its claim, the company argues that alkaline soil has "never been considered a contaminant in the past." Obayashi's local management referred questions to Sound Transit last week.

Dickson has filed claims against Sound Transit to recoup the cost of its cleanup, but so far the company has not been paid.

Dickson officials say they suspect Sound Transit has refused to pay as retribution for Long's sleuthing and Dickson's whistle-blowing. Gray said Dickson failed to provide documentation the agency needed and also declined to enter into mediation on the issue.

Tighter controls in place

The contaminated dirt from the problem dumpsites, as well as more dirt with jet grout coming from Beacon Hill, was eventually routed to government-authorized landfills, chiefly an old gravel mine in Everett run by Rinker Materials.

"We did jump into this very hands-on to get this cleaned up and out of the sites where it shouldn't have been in the first place," Gray said.

And Sound Transit says it now works with its contractors to better control stormwater on the construction sites.

Today, the agency requires its contractors to clearly set out where the waste is supposed to go before construction starts, he said.

"That's a lesson we've learned since then."

To date, the Ecology Department has not issued any fines over the dumping. An Ecology spokesman, Larry Altose, said the department was satisfied that Sound Transit made Obayashi clean up the sites once the problems were found.

Problem still lingers

More than 2 ½ years after the problem emerged, the part of the Beacon Hill project that produced the contaminated soil is finished. Sound Transit says it won't be digging similar deep shafts in the future.

But the problem lingers. In June, after tons of caustic muck was shipped to Rinker's site in Everett, Ecology reversed its position and said no more should go there.

Water pooling in the bottom of the Rinker pit was too alkaline, and it appeared the jet grout was more hazardous than first thought, said Peter Christiansen of Ecology's solid-waste program. An Ecology Department memo warned that putting that kind of material into unlined landfills, such as Rinker's, posed "threats to people, groundwater and surface water."

Even so, Rinker won't have to clean up what's already there, Christiansen said. There's no sign the problem has spilled over to groundwater or nearby streams.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time" to send the mud there, Christiansen said. "But looking further at it, we don't think it's such a good idea."

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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