This past week the State of Oregon sent out a health advisory announcing that a former mine and toxic waste disposal site along the Deschutes River near Terrebonne is nothing to worry about. That's news to neighbors who say they have been inundated with what they say are cancer-causing dust clouds. They say the state has downplayed the risks associated with the site even as its owners lay plans to redevelop the former mine as a rural housing subdivision.
The owners of the site are requesting a rezone from the current Surface
Mine and Agriculture zoning categories to Rural Residential Exception
Area. The Daniels Group plans to redevelop the site as a planned unit
development with 74 homes, which would be permitted under the county's
cluster development rules. However, neighbors fear that lingering
pollution could be disturbed by a residential redevelopment plan,
exposing them to hazardous chemicals. They are demanding that both the
state Environmental Health Assessment Program (EHAP) and the Department
of Environmental Quality (DEQ) do more testing before development
proceeds. In the meantime, a county hearing's officer has recommended
that county commissioners deny the redevelopment application, in part
because the owners have failed to complete all the requirements of the
state clean-up plan.
A Dust Up in Dispute
Imagine spending gorgeous Central Oregon spring days trapped inside your home while clouds of white dust 200 and 300 feet high swirl around the abandoned mine across from your property. Visibility is less than a quarter mile. Sometimes the dust makes its way into the river where it forms beach ball sized gobs of foam that float on the surface of the water. For residents living around the former Lower Bridge Mine it's more than a hypothetical scenario.
According to the most recent zoning hearing documentation, there are nearly 700 parcels of land with over 400 residences within three miles of the mine. The DEQ has been receiving dust complaints from area residents since 2003, according to DEQ documents. Last December Frank Messina, an Environmental Specialist for the DEQ, visited the site and observed white dust blowing off the property. Messina issued the site's owners a Notice of Nuisance Determination, noting that the dust "creates a potential health impact... if inhaled regularly." It went on to state that the dust "contains some small amount of crystalline silica and quartz and this can be harmful if inhaled" and can "cause health problems." In response, the owners placed a pivot sprinkler on the site which waters approximately 140 acres of the 557-acre site. Residents say that the massive dust clouds persist and have even filmed them occurring after watering started.
"I live approximately five miles from the mine," says Terrebonne resident Sarahlee Lawrence. "... [even] though my ranch is not right next to the mine, I can see enormous plumes of white earth from the mine in high winds. The pollutants of the mine travel far from the actual mine site and something needs to be done about it."
The health hazards that area residents are concerned they are breathing in are significant. From approximately 1911-1972 a slew of owners mined diatomite, a product that is used in cleaning abrasives, filters and kitty litter. One of the byproducts of its production is crystalline silica or cristobalite, which can cause inflammation and scarring of the lungs (silicosis) and cancer.
Dave Boyer and his wife live in Lower Bridge Estates and the couple's home overlooks the mine. Boyer says they are often exposed to mine dust on windy days. "The mine site currently poses a significant danger to us and our neighbors. On days when the wind blows [mine] dust to us, we fear spending any time outside," says Boyer. "We stay inside our house, feeling like prisoners on our own property ... we feel betrayed by the DEQ, whose job it is to protect the public from such environmental hazards."
But state experts say the risk to residents around the mine has been greatly exaggerated. EHAP's October report states that airborne dust from the site is an "indeterminate public health hazard" and recommends that further air monitoring be done to determine the particle size and average concentrations of dust in the air and to measure the amount of cristobalite in the dust. But the air quality tests performed in 2006, on which the findings are based, failed to provide much information for state regulators, says David Farrer, a Toxicologist for EHAP.
"There were problems with the data. One of those was that [the testing dates] may not have been a representative time of what it can be like," Farrer says. "The other problem with the data was that some of the citizens where the monitors were placed tampered with the monitoring devices. They turned them on and off when it was meant to be left on all the time."
DEQ's Messina says the tests were performed on days that are representative of the conditions that have historically created complaints from neighbors. Weather reports from the three days that samples were taken say otherwise and show very low wind levels and even rain. But Farrer and Messina both agree that residents have overestimated the risks associated with dust events. At the August 13 meeting in Redmond, Farrer told residents that the dust from the mine they were breathing in was no more dangerous to them than regular dust.
"Dust of any size and any source can cause short-term health respiratory problems," explained Farrer in a subsequent interview.
According to Farrer, at some point in their lives, most people have experienced a thick, visible dust cloud, which causes them to cough and sneeze. "Generally, as soon as you get out of that cloud, after a few minutes your body is able to clear all that stuff out and then you feel back to normal," says Farrer.
"The people who usually get silicosis are people who are working in specific industries like sandblasting or grinding stones or working in industries where they're drilling in stone," says Farrer. "In an occupational setting like that, you're breathing visible clouds of it eight hours a day for 40 hours a week. It's hard to imagine a scenario where you could average that level of exposure living half a mile downwind from the site, even if there was some residual cristobalite there."
Residents want an EPA-approved test conducted at the mine site. So far, this has not been done. The 2006 tests were done to OSHA standards, which represent a lower threshold. The big difference between the two tests is the length of testing and what particle size is tested for. According to Farrer, the NAAQ tests are usually done in urban areas and measure air-quality continuously for one year. The OSHA test measured a few days. More importantly, the NAAQ test measures for air particles of a specific size - 2.5 microns (smaller than the diameter of a hair follicle). This size particle is known to cause long-term health problems. The OSHA test didn't measure for particle size, says Farrer, just for amounts of crystalline silica.
"Right now we don't know what the particle size is around the mine and we don't know what the concentration is of dust in the air," says Farrer.
That's a concern for residents.
"To date, no one has tested air quality when this dust blows to gather exact data describing the severity and danger of the pollutants in the air," says neighbor Greg Druian.
A Toxic Legacy
Residents living near the former mine are also concerned about groundwater contamination because of the site's history as a toxic waste dump, something some residents say they didn't know when they first purchased their homes as many as 17 years ago.
While the DEQ declared the site clean in 1984 and again in 1987 at the behest of federal regulators, residents are concerned that a site that held volatile organic compounds, cyanide, lead, chromium and radioactive materials for as long as eight years could pose a lingering threat to ground and surface water. The recent discovery of PCB's at levels above state health standards on the site has only added to their concerns.
The site's history as a waste dump dates back to 1975 when DEQ approved the site as an industrial waste disposal site. In January of 1976, the disposal permit was revoked by the DEQ when it was discovered that Deschutes Valley Sanitation, the company that owned the site, had misrepresented the depth of the on-site lagoons to be used for storing waste.
"Some of the drums have bulging tops and others have been corroded to the point that they leaked and discoloration from leaking liquids is visible on the side of these drums. A bullet hole and visible signs of past leakage was apparent on one drum," the report states.
In all, four dump truck loads of sludge and 796 barrels of toxic waste were removed from the site, including 161 barrels of low-level radioactive waste and about 45,300 gallons of chemically hazardous and radioactive wastes in all. Some of the waste was shipped to the Hanford Nuclear Waste facility in Washington, one of the largest and most polluted nuclear waste sites in the country.
The EPA considered declaring the former mine a Superfund clean-up site, a designation reserved for only the most environmentally damaged places in the country, but determined that the site did not qualify based on assurances and preliminary tests done at the site by the DEQ. Residents say that the original tests done by the DEQ were far from comprehensive. They looked at the discovery of PCBs this past April as proof of this.
In April of 2008, PBS Engineering and Environmental, at the request of PacifiCorp (who were tipped off by an area resident), conducted soil tests around the areas where the power company had power substations and electrical transformers. In the April report by PBS Engineering and Environmental, the samples taken at the Lower Bridge Mine site exceeded the three screening concentrations set by the DEQ for residential, occupational and construction worker exposures. These areas were cleaned, re-tested and deemed PCB-free by PacifiCorp by August.
DEQ's Anderson says that in his opinion, there is not a threat of PCBs leaking into the groundwater. "It's not really that easy for the stuff to travel vertically. It can theoretically happen, but that's not a concern. If it gets rezoned, we'll definitely explore that by boring under the area, but typically that doesn't happen," Anderson says.
Residents say that the soil sampling that was done is still not satisfactory.
"It is possible that cleanup operations in 1983 and 1984 failed to remove all toxins on site," says area homeowner David Boyer. "If toxins do remain on site, permitting 57-74 new wells to be drilled on the property could allow toxins to enter and contaminate our groundwater. This could impact all existing residences that rely upon this shared groundwater, as well as allow toxins to enter into the Deschutes River," he says.
With things like 300 foot dust clouds, questionable testing methods and the possibility of toxins that haven't been tested for seeping into the groundwater, residents around the former mine site say they want more proof that the site is hazard free regardless of whether or not it is redeveloped.
"I'm concerned about the past pollution of the ground and possible pollution of the air," says area resident Ron MacKay. "This site should not be approved for Rural Residential [use] to allow redevelopment until the ground and air quality are tested and proven to be safe by the DEQ or appropriate state agencies," he says.
Neighbor Greg Druian agrees. "If reputable studies of pollution at the mine site are done, and effective steps to remove this pollution are taken, then rezoning might be a worthwhile outcome for the mine," he says. "But rezoning and development without attention to mine pollution is absurd and dangerous."
In the meantime, residents are gearing for another showdown with state regulators at a community meeting scheduled for November 3 at the Redmond Senior Center. You can bet area residents will be voicing their opinions about their unaddressed questions.