Kimberly-Clark mill leaves toxic mess in Everett

EVERETT — The Kimberly-Clark mill is closed, but not forgotten in Snohomish County.

Unsafe levels of dioxins have been found in the waterway next to the plant, The Daily Herald reported Sunday. Tests have found the toxic substances linked to cancer in humans at 15 times the level the state considers safe.

Petroleum contamination also has been found at the 66-acre plant site. Oil companies used parts of the site for petroleum storage and distribution during much of the 20th century.

State law says that at some point the site has to be cleaned up.

Kimberly-Clark closed the plant last month, saying it’s difficult to make a profit in the pulp and paper business. The property is up for sale. Most of the pollution was in the bay before Kimberly-Clark bought the plant in 1995. But under state law, the present owner of a property is liable for the cost of cleanup.

Kimberly-Clark officials say pollution was one reason a potential buyer of the plant balked at the deal last year. The sale could have saved nearly half the 700 jobs on the site.

For several decades, beginning in the 1930s, wastewater from making paper was dumped directly into the East Waterway, an arm of Port Gardner between the Kimberly-Clark plant and Naval Station Everett. The dioxins are believed to have come from chlorine used in the bleaching process and from chemicals used to break wood down into pulp.

Dioxins also are thought to have been deposited by ash from smokestacks at mills all along the waterfront.

More dioxins are present in the bay near the Kimberly-Clark plant, however, than anywhere else in Port Gardner, state Department of Ecology officials said.

“The rest of the waterway does not have those high levels,” said Teresa Michelsen, a natural resources scientist for the state Department of Ecology.

The East Waterway is not open to the public, and the pollution is not considered an immediate threat to human health, environmental officials said. Anyone who eats a fish that’s been in the waterway, however, could be exposed.

“We still don’t have a complete grasp of everything at the mill site and surrounding properties, as well as the East Waterway,” said Seth Preston, a spokesman for the Department of Ecology. “We’ve got more work to do.”

A cleanup plan could be developed as early as next year and for the waterway by 2014, said Andy Kallus, who is in charge of Port Gardner pollution sites for the Ecology Department.

Cleanup of the waterway would likely involve dredging, while contaminated soil on land would be dug out, Kallus said. Cleanup costs could reach into the millions.

The East Waterway has been on a state cleanup list since 2007. Some cleanup of the waterway has been done through dredging by the adjacent Port of Everett and Naval Station Everett, but there has been no comprehensive project.

“There are a lot of demands and limits associated with cleanups,” Preston said. The state has cleaned up 6,000 sites and still has 5,000 on the list, he said. The sites are ranked by risk to people and the environment.