Dirty secrets in abandoned SE Portland landfill

COURTESY DEQ - This is how the Johnson Creek Landfill appeared in January 1971, according to a photo uncovered in Oregon Department of Environmental Quality records.

Just south of Johnson Creek sits an abandoned landfill that time, and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, forgot.

Built in 1950 before modern landfill regulations were written, the dump at 7600 S.E. Johnson Creek Blvd. lacked a liner to prevent chemicals from leaking out the bottom, or a system to collect the leakage before it polluted the creek or local groundwater.

A Portland Tribune investigation of DEQ files revealed that toxic chemicals were found beneath the landfill, a repository for construction debris and industrial waste from nearby Precision Castparts Corp. Yet there are no records of it ever getting cleaned up, despite fears it would contaminate nearby Johnson Creek — the target of ongoing cleanup campaigns involving multiple cities, nonprofits and scores of volunteers.

Only a handful of records still remain from the landfill’s 30 years of operation, but they show that as far back as 1980, a state DEQ administrator warned that the dump, known officially as Johnson Creek Landfill, might eventually pollute the creek, if it hadn’t done so already.

“It is possible that leachate from the landfill could contaminate the shallow groundwater table and Johnson Creek,” warned Charlie Gray, a DEQ assistant administrator, in a Sept. 29, 1980, inspection report. Wastes dumped at the site were “corrosive” and “ignitable,” Gray wrote. In addition, Gray said he had found “evidence of improper disposal of bulk liquids, semi-solids and sludges.”

Groundwater underneath the former landfill is known to move northward toward Johnson Creek — about 750 feet away — at the rate of 1 mile every 10 years. At that rate, any contamination could have reached the creek in as little as 17 months. The former dump is perched on Johnson Creek’s floodplain, so an occasional flood, or a healthy dose of rain, could carry contaminants down toward the groundwater or into the creek itself.

DEQ records show that during the 1990s, three monitoring wells dug at the site detected 24 toxic chemicals — including lead, arsenic and chromium — in the groundwater some 30 feet below the surface, roughly level with the creek.

But DEQ records indicate the agency hasn’t collected any new data at the site since 1995.

Out of sight, out of mind 

Since then, based on the documents the DEQ supplied, it appears the former dump fell off the agency’s radar screen. Few people, including experts on the current DEQ staff and in the community, are even aware that the landfill ever existed, or if anyone tried to clean it up.

“I have no knowledge of the site,” Dan Hafly, a DEQ geologist, said in a recent interview. Hafly is in charge of the DEQ’s program of monitoring groundwater contamination in the Milwaukie area, which includes the unincorporated area where the landfill was located.

“This is the first I heard of it,” said Dan Newberry, executive director of the Johnson Creek Watershed Council. The council is a nonprofit dedicated to restoring water quality in the creek and associated wildlife habitat. It’s one of many state-sanctioned watershed councils around the state that are funded by Oregon lottery earnings.

“I’ve never heard of the site,” said Craig Johnston, a professor of environmental law at Lewis & Clark College and a leading national expert on laws regulating the disposal of hazardous waste.

Norbert Loske, a leader of the Overland Park Coalition, the local neighborhood association, said he lived near the site for 16 years but didn’t know there was a former landfill buried there.

After fielding an inquiry from a reporter, Hafly said the DEQ may reopen its long-forgotten site investigation.

The DEQ considers the site to be “low priority,” he said, but has not officially closed its investigation. “It might be useful for the agency to take a fresh look.”

Whereabouts of contamination unknown

Today, no one knows if, or where, those 24 toxic compounds migrated. No one knows if they are all still in the groundwater, or whether some or all have reached the creek.

The 9-acre landfill, previously a sand and gravel quarry, has a sketchy history.

Its private operator, LaVelle Construction Co., ran it from 1950 until at least 1973, when it was closed because it was filled to capacity. LaVelle also ran a similar landfill about 1 mile south.

In 1972, DEQ records show that the landfill accepted 600,000 cubic yards of waste annually, mainly asphalt, concrete, rock, dirt, demolition wastes and industrial wastes.

The landfill’s solid waste permit, which the DEQ issued in 1971, expired on May 1, 1973, but the dump inexplicably continued to accept waste until mid-1980. The old records offer no clue as to how a dump that held no currently valid permit and was already filled to capacity could accept more waste, or whether any laws were found to have been violated. The dump apparently was not used after 1980, when Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, a law that strictly regulated the disposal of solid waste.

Today, most of the Portland area’s garbage is sent to a regional landfill at Arlington in East Oregon. But before 1980, that garbage went to the Johnson Creek Landfill and 56 other local landfills around the Portland area, many of which wouldn’t comply with today’s sanitary landfill standards, according to “Our landfill legacy,” a 2004 report from Metro.

The new federal law, known as RCRA, required the safe management and cleanup of solid and hazardous waste.

It appears the landfill operated illegally at times, even before passage of the 1980 federal law. According to an Oct. 18, 1972, notice of violation sent to landfill owner Harold LaVelle, the dump had unlawfully accepted “putrescible (putrid)” wastes “in violation of your solid waste disposal permit.” The notice was signed by L.B. Day, DEQ’s first director.

Used for Precision Castparts waste

Seven old documents, including one from as early as 1972, show that Precision Castparts, the aerospace manufacturer that operates titanium and steel alloy plants about 1.5 miles to the west, dumped industrial wastes at the landfill. A handwritten ledger torn from a yellow legal pad, attached to the inspection report, shows the company dumped 21,151 cubic feet of waste at the site in 1979 and 1980 — long after the landfill was ostensibly filled to capacity and its permit had expired.

Precision Castparts was acquired in January 2016 by Berkshire Hathaway, an investment firm led by chairman and CEO Warren Buffett, for $37 billion. The purchase was the firm’s largest in its 177-year history, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. Precision Castparts is a defense contractor. There isn’t a plane in the air that doesn’t contain engine components made by Precision Castparts, including those flown by the US military, according to its web site.

David Dugan, Precision Castparts’ newly named director of corporate communications, said the company “would not have disposed of waste in a closed landfill.” He suggested the company sent its waste at the time to the other nearby landfill.

The yellow sheet provided the only accounting of a specific date and amount of waste sent there by the company.

Other records show that during those years, Precision Castparts sent two types of caustic soda (potassium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide), sodium nitrate (salt), chromium and kolene, a solvent, to the Johnson Creek Landfill.

Johnston, the law professor, said tighter federal laws may have ended the company’s use of the landfill.

“RCRA regulations became effective in May 1980, which may be why Precision Castparts stopped sending waste there,” Johnston suggested.

A Tribune analysis of public records shows that 20 of the 24 toxic compounds found in the groundwater under the landfill also were found in Precision Castparts’ sewer pipes. This analysis was based on a comparison between landfill monitoring data obtained from the DEQ and sewer-monitoring records obtained from the city of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services through a public records request.

There’s no way to be certain if Precision Castparts was the source of both the contamination in its sewers and in the leachate underneath the landfill, but Johnson noted “there is a lot of overlap.”

Most of the chemicals found in both locations are known or suspected carcinogens.

Dugan said the 24 chemicals found underneath the landfill are “consistent with materials in other landfills and other industrial sites for the period.” Precision Castparts has “materials similar to the ones identified in (DEQ’s Johnson Creek Landfill database) in soils and groundwater under its plant,” Dugan acknowledged, and is addressing that contamination in a Voluntary Clean-up Program with DEQ.

“We don’t have any information beyond what appears in the database,” Dugan said.

Charlie Gray’s 1980 memo did not indicate who was suspected of the “improper” discharges into the landfill. But he concluded: “The substratum is very porous and they probably ended up in Johnson Creek, which abuts the site.”

Companies that later acquired the closed landfill, United Pipe & Supply Co. Inc. and Fred’s Travel-Rama, commissioned three groundwater studies by consultants that were provided to the DEQ in 1989, 1992 and 1995, and revealed those 24 toxic compounds. The 1989 study found levels of benzene, lead and trichloroethylene (TCE) in the groundwater at concentrations above the maximum contaminant level (mcl) allowed in drinking water.

In 1989, the DEQ discovered widespread groundwater contamination in the Milwaukie area, including TCE. The agency began looking at the Johnson Creek Landfill as one potential source of this contamination because Milwaukie’s drinking water wells are located just a mile south of the old dump. However, studies found that the landfill was not a significant source of TCE, and the groundwater was flowing north, in the opposite direction of the drinking water wells.

Files go dark

DEQ took its most recent administrative action on the landfill on Nov. 22, 1995, the year of the final groundwater study, when it recommended that it continue monitoring the site.

But DEQ’s files contained no monitoring data after 1995, so there’s no written record of whether or how it complied with this recommendation.

“As I understand it,” Johnston said, “you have a hot spot of contamination, it’s sitting there, it’s migrating toward the creek, and the question is, can we make anybody do something about it?”

Johnston said that under RCRA, citizens can file suit to force entities that dumped hazardous waste to clean it up. To succeed in such a case, he said, citizens must first prove that the dumped material fit the federal definition of “hazardous waste,” and then must show that the contamination endangers something in the creek, such as a child or a fish.

Children often play in the creek downstream from the landfill, and the creek is habitat to endangered runs of wild coho salmon and steelhead, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

However, under Oregon law, no one can force the DEQ to clean up a site if it chooses not to, Johnston said.

“DEQ has no obligation to address every contamination problem,” he said. “I’m assuming they’ve written this one off.”

Overlapping contaminants

Chemicals found in both the groundwater beneath the former Johnson Creek Landfill and in Precision Castparts sewers: acenaphthene; arsenic; barium; benzene; benzo(a)pyrene; cadmium; chlorobenzene; chloroform; chromium; lead; methylene chloride; naphthalene; nickel; phenol; phenols; polyaromatic hydrocarbons; toluene; trichloroethane; trichloroethylene; xylene.

Most of these chemicals are known or suspected carcinogens.

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