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Dump Mystery—is it toxic?

The mystery of whether there’s toxic trouble at the Old Twisp Landfill isn’t likely to be solved by government agencies any time soon.

That’s because it’s essentially the responsibility of citizens to provide initial evidence that something’s amiss at such sites, according to Dave Hilton, director of the Okanogan County Public Health Department. The kind of testing that would reveal problems can cost hundreds of dollars, he added.

 “We have nothing to do with the old landfill,” said Hilton when asked if his agency monitors or inspects it. That’s the responsibility of the Okanogan County Public Works Department, which closed the site to public use in 1985 when the Twisp transfer station opened.

But the public works department has no active groundwater monitoring wells at the site and doesn’t inspect the landfill either, interim director of the county’s public works department, Bob Parten, told Methow Grist.

The public health department does monitor the J.A. Wright septage operation but not the landfill under it, Hilton explained. In some counties, landfill monitoring duties are carried out by public health departments, but it’s up to the counties to decide who does it. Okanogan County opted at the time the landfill was closed to give lead responsibility to the county’s public works department, he said. 

State Department of Ecology officials at a June 14 hearing on whether to extend Wright’s permit said they aren’t aware of any evidence that the landfill is unsafe either, although some members of the audience expressed worries that it may be leaching pollutants.

Hilton said he has spoken with people who have expressed concern about the landfill but they have not provided evidence that there’s a problem that should be addressed by his agency.

Asked if he feels confident that there’s nothing to fear from the landfill, Hilton said that with what he now knows, “I’d have to say that I am.”

Asked how he can feel confident that nothing’s going wrong at the landfill if no one is looking for evidence that it is or isn’t, Hilton jokingly answered: “It’s because what we don’t know won’t hurt us.”

One of the issues raised by citizens at the Ecology hearing was the rumor that there was a 50-foot deep ravine at the old landfill into which possibly toxic garbage had been dumped.  But Ecology officials say the garbage was buried at a depth of only 15 feet with a 42-to 60- inch soil cover, and that there are granite bedrock outcrops under the landfill.

“The ability to physically bury waste that deep in this setting is questionable,” Darlene M. Frye, regional section manager with Ecology’s waste program, wrote in 2009 in a reply to a citizen inquiry about the safety of the landfill.

 “Although the continuity of the confining bedrock across the entire landfill area is unknown, it is unlikely that the first alluvial aquifer of the valley floor has direct contact with the waste, even when water is flowing in the leaky (irrigation) canal,” said Frye. That canal is 250 feet from the base of the sidewall of the terrace on which the landfills sits, she said. She added that initial monitoring wells did not encounter water “until they reached valley floor strata below 71 feet.”

Six lysimeters installed by public works (which measure the amount of precipitation received and then lost through the soil) show that moisture is very limited at the site, she said, and “connection with the alluvial valley floor aquifer is unlikely.”

In 2009, Wright measured how much liquid had accumulated in the lysimeters over the previous 22 years since landfill closure, Frye said. Three in the northern half of the landfill were dry. The other three contained six to 11 inches of liquid.

Three groundwater monitoring wells were sunk after closure of the landfill. One went to 51 feet with 39 feet in bedrock; it was abandoned as a dry well. The second well, above the northwest end of the landfill, was drilled to 99 feet with water encountered at 88 feet.  The third well went to 83 feet but was dry. Pumps were installed on the second and third wells.

Ecology’s records show that there had been “some confusion” about whether the landfill’s closure would have to be carried out under stricter new rules that were to take effect in 1989, according to Frye’s account.

The closure of the landfill was intentionally carried out under the older, more lax regulations because it was understood that the imminent new regulations would be more costly, according to Hilton, who added that a search of his agency’s records showed that it seems never to have received copies of the final closure document for the landfill. The health department has only a copy of the draft proposal for closing it, he said, not the final rules governing closure.  

Whatever may have been the county’s intent, on Feb. 10, 1992, Ecology officials informed Okanogan County that two wells could be used for monitoring. But they added that since the landfill was closed prior to enactment of the stricter requirements, the landfill was already in compliance with the law “even without the wells,” according to Frye.

“Both monitoring wells have been dry most or all of the time. The monitoring well closest to the irrigation canal contained water only when the canal was full and leaking water into the valley floor alluvial sediments penetrated by the bottom of the well. Although Okanogan County attempted to monitor groundwater, the lack of water to test led to the program’s discontinuation. Sampling and analyzing water that is present only because of the leaky canal would do little more than test the properties of the surface water that was diverted from the Methow River,” Frye wrote.

In reply to reports that two private wells near the landfill had been “exuding an orange-brown sludge over the last five years,” Frye said that “Off color water or sludge is not confirmation that the groundwater has been contaminated by the landfill.” It can be caused by “the growth of harmless yet annoying iron bacteria which are a common problem nationwide.”

Meanwhile George Wooten, who testified at Ecology’s hearing, clarified that although he had been speaking as an individual when he said he does not oppose Wright’s permit extension, he had in fact been formally representing the Methow Valley Citizens Council, which does oppose the extension. Wooten said his position is that he would not oppose the permit “if groundwater contamination was not a problem.”

Spreading Sewage
Department of Ecology listens to concerns

story and photo by Solveig Torvik

Hannelore van den Hengle (right) tells Ecology officials (from left) Darlene M. Frye, Gary Bleeker and Daniel Thompson that the nitrogen in her well may have come from the JA Wright septage field above her property.

Even though the Old Twisp Landfill may have been unsafely closed in the mid-1980s, that’s “irrelevant” to the pending decision on whether JA Wright Construction should be allowed to continue to spread partially treated sewage on top of the landfill.

Five state Department of Ecology officials stressed that message at a Tuesday evening hearing at the Twisp Community Center attended by some 20 concerned citizens. But many of those who spoke at the meeting strongly disagreed. They argued that before Jim Wright’s five-year permit extension is granted, groundwater and soil sampling tests should be completed to ascertain whether any toxins that may be buried at the landfill are leaching out of the site to nearby wells, the adjoining irrigation canal or the Methow River. Batteries, equipment used to spread DDT, electrical transformers and refrigerators containing Freon were among items mentioned as having been dumped at the landfill before valley residents had safer disposal options.

The landfill was closed by the Okanogan County Public Health Department prior to regulations that now require closed landfills to have a cap and liner. Responsibility for monitoring the landfill belongs to the county health department, according to Ecology officials, though Ecology septage specialist Wendy Neet said she inspects the site once a year. No representative from the health department was present at the hearing, and Okanogan County Environmental Health Director Dave Hilton was unreachable for comment.

The hearing on the permit extension was called by Ecology because neighbors complained of odors from Wright’s septage operation off Filer Road, on a bluff hidden from public view just northeast of the junction of Highway 20 and State Road 153.

Wright said he spreads formaldehyde-free waste from septic tanks and portable toilets on 25 acres at the site, including the six-acre landfill. He’s permitted to spread septage one half-inch deep per year across the site, which he bought in 2001. He’s also required to halt spreading during heavy rains or snow, though that decision is left to his “professional judgment,” according to Ecology officials. Neither Wright nor Ecology staffers could say which chemicals are used in processing Wright’s waste stream.

Despite Ecology officials’ efforts to limit the scope of the discussion to the permit, the focus of the hearing remained centered on the lack of information about the landfill and fears that it may be having adverse affects on human health and the environment.

Audience members argued that the site needs to be examined because state law now reflects more scientifically sophisticated understanding that groundwater monitoring and stringent enclosure requirements are needed for landfills to prevent harm to humans, fish and wildlife. But DOE Solid Waste Facilities Specialist Gary Bleeker replied that the newer regulations don’t apply to old sites such as this one. “It has nothing to do with this site… It’s irrelevant.”

“I’ve not seen anything that says to me that there was a serious problem,” added Section Manager of Solid Waste and Financial Assistance Darlene M. Frye.

Frye said she has no knowledge of what is buried there and does not know if there is an old ravine under the landfill, as some local residents claim. She said that the state has many old landfills, and to dig them up or set up monitoring systems is too expensive. “We have to have a reason for digging,” she said. Without evidence that something’s gone wrong at the landfill, she added, “There is no way for me to address it.”

Asked before the meeting how Ecology can conclude that there are no problems with the landfill without having results from monitoring wells or other tests to support that conclusion, Tom Tebb, regional director of Ecology’s Yakima office replied: “That’s a good question.”

Hannelore van den Hengle, who owns three houses and an agricultural field immediately below Wright’s septage operation, told Ecology that her wells are contaminated with nitrogen that she suspects is leaching from the septage field.

But Tebb suggested the nitrogen may be coming from other sources such as the peas grown on her land. Ecology’s intent in allowing septage operations is fixing nitrogen to enhance plant growth and aid in habitat restoration, he said. Ecology biosolids specialist Daniel Thompson added that the amount of nitrogen seepage from septage is “virtually zero.”

Cameryn Lee of Twisp testified that an environmental impact statement that explores the underlying condition of the landfill site should be required before the permit is issued.

Steve Salisbury of Twisp read a list of names of people near the landfill who have died of cancer or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He questioned whether the landfill may have contributed to their deaths.

Paula Mackrow of Carlton told Ecology that in the landfill closure documents, “the county wrote erroneously that there’s a cap, and your permit is based on that error.” She characterized the septage operation as “icing on a rotten cake.”

George Wooten of Twisp said he does not oppose the permit extension. “But I’m very concerned that the old landfill is a bigger problem than we know.”

The only person testifying in favor of the permit was Omak resident Lori Morgan, who said the landfill site is “a great location” to dump septage. She said her great-grandparents, grandparents and parents were “dump rats” who daily reclaimed items from the landfill. “None of them died of anything bad,” she said.

There are 50 septage sites statewide, 13 of them in central Washington, Neet said. The only other valley septage site is Methow Valley Septic on Lookout Mountain Road in Twisp.

Wright said if his permit is not approved, he will have to haul the septage out of the valley.

Written comments on the permit will be accepted until June 21 and should be sent to:

Wendy Neet
Department of Ecology
15 W. Yakima Ave # 200
Yakima, WA 98902

Story and photo by
Solveig Torvik