An exemption in Oregon law will allow a quarter-million tons of pesticide-contaminated farm soil to be reclassified as clean fill dirt after it’s moved to another farm six miles away.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is seeking public comment on the plan, which will allow the late Salem developer Larry Epping’s company to create a 150-acre residential community on the contaminated farm in Northeast Salem.
The pesticide in question – dieldrin – has been banned for nearly 50 years and is so dangerous that if more than one pound enters the environment, the federal government’s National Response Center must be notified immediately.
DEQ says that while the contaminated soil would pose ingestion, inhalation and skin contact hazards for residents of the new community, it would be no more hazardous than existing soil at the farm site. And exposure limits for farm workers are higher than for residents.
"In this case, it was the best and least expensive way to deal with the soil," said Nancy Sawka, a project manager in DEQ’s cleanup section. "Otherwise it would cost quite a bit of money to put it in the landfill.”Oregon Department of Agriculture officials, however, expressed concerns.
"I'm a little puzzled in regards to allowing that as a (cleanup) opportunity," Dale Mitchell, ODA's pesticide program manager, said.
The Zielinski family, which owns nearby E.Z. Orchards Farm Market, has farmed the property at 2985 Kale St. NE since the 1890s, growing row crops in the early years and grass and grain more recently.
The city of Salem annexed the property in 2001, and the Zielinskis sold it to Epping’s Granada Land Company in 2005. Since then, Doug Zielinski, who owns neighboring Alpha Nursery, has leased back the land to grow wheat.
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Now, developers want to turn the farm into a residential community, called Northstar, with 500 home lots, plus duplexes and apartments.
But soil samples taken between August 2015 and June 2016 showed the presence of the pesticides DDT, DDD, DDE, aldrin, atrazine, chloropyrifos, diuron and dieldrin. Only dieldrin exceeded health standards for residential use of the property.
Dieldrin is a breakdown product of aldrin, an insecticide similar to DDT. It was banned for crop use in 1970, but persists in soil for years and can accumulate up the food chain.
People are most commonly exposed when they eat fish, shellfish, meat or dairy products from animals that have eaten food contaminated with the pesticide. Root vegetables, too, can pick up dieldrin from contaminated soil.
An engineering firm hired by the developers estimated it would cost $12 million to excavate the soil and take it to a landfill licensed to handle the waste, or $8 million to treat the soil with an additive that reduces the contamination.
It recommended moving the soil to a low-lying portion of the property, capping it, and donating that portion of land for use as a school or city park. That would cost $4 million but would require ongoing monitoring.
Later, the engineers added another alternative: Trucking the soil to another farm owned by the Zielinskis, at 6848 Windsor Island Road. There, it could be dumped into two former quarry pits, at a cost of about $3.3 million.
“The waste will not be encapsulated, but rather left exposed and re-used as farmland,” the engineers wrote.
The pits are above the water table and not in a flood zone, so groundwater or surface water contamination is not likely, Sawka, the DEQ manager, said. A deed notice will be placed on the property to prohibit residential use unless the dieldrin levels are reduced.
DEQ provided a solid waste disposal permit exemption to allow the transfer.
“Based on our review of the application, we conclude that the soil currently generated by the Northstar Development project are substantially the same as clean fill, and therefore the disposal site is exempt from solid waste permitting regulation,” DEQ wrote to developers in March.
That’s because the property already is being farmed, and is going to be farmed for a long time, Sawka said.
“This is putting it where there are similar soils or similar contaminants,” she said.
While DEQ regulates contamination on industrial and residential sites, it doesn’t regulate farmland, Sawka said.
Instead, farm regulation falls to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, she said, and there are no health-based standards for pesticide contamination in agricultural soil.
Mitchell said ODA only has the authority to ensure that pesticides are used according to label directions.
Cleanup situations, even on agricultural land, fall under federal statutes, which DEQ is delegated to enforce, he said.
Oregon law prohibits any farm use of dieldrin, Mitchell said. That means a farmer who may have old containers of the pesticide could be cited and fined if it’s used.
It’s uncertain how that law applies to dieldrin that is mixed with soil, he said.
The soil will be trucked along a route running west on Kale Street onto Lockhaven Drive, then turning north on Windsor Island Road. Trucks will be covered, Sawka said.
“Especially with the dieldrin,” she said. “We don’t want the dirt coming out and flying all over, and the dust, especially with that amount of truck traffic.”
Even using the largest dump trucks, it would take an estimated 14,000 trips to move all the dirt. But that won’t be done all at once, Sawka said.
The property is in the process of being sold to Clackamas-based I & E Construction, she said. That company has indicated it will clear a section of the property, then build, before moving on to another section. A schedule will be in place before work begins in August, she said.
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Comments must be received by 5 p.m. on July 31. Mail to DEQ Project Manager Nancy Sawka, 4026 Fairview Industrial Drive, Salem, OR 97302; or email email@example.com.
DEQ will address all comments and may approve, modify or deny the proposal.
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