‘A safer coexistence’: Community briefing on Seattle Iron & Metals pollution settlement for Duwamish Valley

Story and photos by Jason Grotelueschen
Reporting for West Seattle Blog

Area residents gathered Wednesday night to hear details about a $1 million settlement requiring Seattle Iron & Metals to make changes in response to long-standing concerns with water/air pollution and safety.

The community briefing, held on the South Seattle College (WSB sponsor) Georgetown campus, focused on the details of the January settlement between SIM and Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, in cooperation with the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition.

Last August, we covered a similar DRCC briefing following the barge fire at Seattle Iron and Metals that prompted a great deal of community concern. Safety concerns stemming from that incident were part of the Wednesday night discussion, which included representation from numerous area entities, including SIM itself.

(As noted on their website, SIM is a “full service metals processor and recycler,” located on the banks of the Duwamish River, founded in 1922).

Paulina Lopez from DRCC opened the meeting with a welcome and a message of “kudos to you all” for the collective efforts on the settlement, going back to 2012.

“This particular project has been a tough journey,” Lopez said, “but it makes my heart feel better that we’re not alone in these efforts. The river is getting healthier and the people around the river are getting healthier.” Lopez stressed that the settlement is part of a larger effort: “Our zip code has traditionally been very polluted” and is largely an industrial area, thus there are long-running concerns about air quality and water quality, in addition to issues with safety such as the SIM barge fire.

Lopez then introduced Daniella Cortez of the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps, who emphasized that “we have a job to raise our voices and to help one another in critical issues like this.”

“We want to give voice to the voiceless,” Cortez said. “With that responsibility we’ll keep moving forward and help make laws that hold everyone accountable for their actions. Thank you for letting me be the voice for our youth members.”

Next up was Chris Wilke, executive director of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance organization that was a driving force behind the lawsuit and eventual settlement with SIM. Wilke talked about the mission of the organization dating back to 1990, getting out in boats and driving cleanup efforts, and “striving to be your voice for clean water” which means protecting “not just big waterways; it starts in creeks and small waterways and in the mountains.” Wilke said the group works hard in Olympia on shaping policy, and in collaboration with business-sector partners such as marinas and boating. Any resident who needs to report a water-pollution issue can call the group’s hotline at 800-42-PUGET and they’ll look into it and respond.

“Our waters are public,” Wilke said, “no one has a right to destroy our waterways, and we all have a responsibility to protect them.” The 1972 Clean Water Act is foundational in how the organization works to legally protect waterways, Wilke said, in addition to the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. While the government is the primary enforcement agency in legal matters like this, Wilke said it’s written into the Clean Water Act that any community group can bring an action to court, which is what he and the Puget Soundkeeper organization did as it relates to Seattle Iron & Metals.

Wilke said the organization has always had a special focus on the Duwamish River. “It’s Seattle’s only river. It’s an important place economically, and with wildlife like eagles and ospreys and sea lions, and of course with the communities along the river.” As part of the Soundkeeper’s regular work in cleaning up the Duwamish, Wilke said the group became aware of many issues with Seattle Iron and Metals, as it related to air pollution and high levels of PCB chemicals going into the river, where they can cause a host of issues for people and animals. Wilke referenced recent headlines involving orca whales getting sick and dying because of eating PCB-contaminated fish.

The timeline for the actions leading up to last month’s settlement was:

  • Pre-2012: Puget Soundkeeper monitoring
  • 2012: Puget Soundkeeper filed lawsuit in U.S. District Court (federal)
  • 2013-2015: Puget Soundkeeper filed permit appeal with Pollution Control Hearings Board (PCHB); lawsuit stayed
  • 2015: PCHB issued decision (partial win); appeal to WA Court of Appeals
  • 2016: WA Court of Appeals hearing
  • 2017: WA Court of Appeals issued decision (partial win); appeal to WA Supreme Court (oral argument)
  • 2018: WA Supreme Court issued decision; lawsuit stay lifted (litigation); mediation
  • January 2019: Settlement reached

The next presenter was Katelyn Kinn, staff attorney for Puget Soundkeeper. Kinn noted that her remarks would be focused on the facts regarding the pollutants, with “no new heightened warnings” because “the history of Seattle Iron & Metals is public record.”

Kinn said there has been a history of SIM with violations going back 20 or more years related to stormwater, wastewater,”fugitive dust” and “fluff piles” from metal-recycling activities. SIM has an open-air shredder large enough to shred cars and other large items, and the residue from those activities can cause problems if not properly contained, Kinn said.

According to Kinn, a key goal is “safer coexistence” between SIM (and facilities like it) and the Duwamish River and its communities.

“We believe that Seattle Iron & Metals can safely coexist with the community and the river,” Kinn said, stressing that now that the settlement has been reached, it’s important that “we take the opportunity with this cleanup to do it once and do it right,” minimizing future contamination risks. She said the lawsuit took 6 years, “a long time,” but noted that the effort “paused in the middle” to focus on improving the law and permits, then working to enforce it. Copies of the 23-page “consent decree” were available at the meeting (see it here).  Kinn said one of the good things about a settlement of this nature is that it “avoids the expense of a trial, but is still enforceable in court.”

Kinn showed some visuals including a “site layout” overview:

The red circle is the main lot, green where the meeting took place (community college), blue is the primary recycling are for autos and electronics and other items (source of residue and fluff), and yellow is the parking lot on Myrtle.

Kinn walked through other particulars of the settlement, also explained in a handout available to meeting attendees:

Key Community Impacts:

  • LESS DUST emitted from facility into surrounding neighborhoods
  • LESS POLLUTION flowing to the river
    • Liquids, solids and substances in between
    • Visible and invisible pollutants
  • LESS TRUCK TRAFFIC through residential streets

Settlement Highlights:

  1. Auto Shredder Residue (ASR) “fluff piles” reduced to 12 feet in 2019 (went into effect on January 17th)
  2. Infrared heat fire-suppression sprinkler system by March 2019 (being installed by this weekend)
  3. Stormwater from parking lot
    • Monthly sampling (including PCBs) for 2 years (started in January)
    • Upgrade/replace treatment system if needed
  4. Updated employee and customer traffic routes by spring 2019
  5. $200k in local grants to Soundkeeper’s Puget Sound Stewardship Mitigation Fund
    • Projects that are at the intersection of water quality and human health
    • Includes aerial deposition of pollutants in the Duwamish River watershed
    • Included food chains which rely on central Puget Sound and the health of its waters
    • Apply via the Rose Foundation, deadline is September 2019
  6. Shredder-containment structure in late 2019 (enclose the shredder with 6-8″ of steel and a proper enclosure so no dust escapes)
  7. Dust-containment wind fences in 2019 (install fences along the top of the site’s walls and by the auto shredder, and raise existing fences 15′ higher, including a fabric that allows air flow but still catches dust)
  8. Dust monitoring
    • Summer 2019: background data
    • 2020-2021: fenceline data (compare the two summer “dry seasons”)
    • Test for solids, metals, dioxins, PCBs
    • Additional dust controls if needed
  9. Nearshore debris cleanup
    • Annual surveys
    • Debris removal
  10. Main lot stormwater & wastewater
    • Replace pipe to river
    • No mixing zone for PCBs by 2010
  11. South Dock repair and replacement by 2020 (in response to an audience question about the North Dock, Kinn noted that the South Dock is currently not usable, only the North Dock is, but the South Dock will now be regularly cleaned and managed until it is repaired/replaced next year)

In response to an audience question of “this all sounds good, but who will be holding SIM accountable for all of this?” Kinn stated: “I am. Not alone, it’s a huge job, but for the next 5 years, this is a big part of my job.” She encouraged anyone with questions or concerns to call her office at 206-297-7002.

Chris Wilke took the podium once more to stress that the settlement is a 3-way agreement between SIM, Puget Soundkeeper, and the US justice system. He also put in another plug for the Rose Foundation grants, which include grants up to $25,000 in addition to smaller “grassroots grants” in the $5,000-10,000 range. He encouraged any interested group to apply by the March 15 deadline, and noted that application assistance is available.

With that, the meeting moved into a Q&A “panel discussion” session, led by moderator James Rasmussen, DRCC coordinator:

The panel included:

  • Chris Wilke, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance
  • Katelynn Kinn, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance
  • Allison Geiselbrecht, Seattle Iron and Metals
  • Nathan Hart, Seattle Public Utilities
  • Edwin Hernandez Reto, community member

Also participating, from the audience, was Bo Li from the state Department of Ecology:

Li noted that her work was “not a direct part of the settlement” but that she was there to help answer questions. Her work focuses on writing permits and documents to help ensure the SIM facility’s compliance.

Raw notes of the panel discussion, featuring questions from the audience, are below:

  • Q from neighbor Marianne Clark:  I live in the area (on Carlton, right across the street on 8th) and a lot of dust still comes on to my windshield, and in the past 5-6 months I’ve started noticing a new “oily film” on my windshield almost every day? What is that? A: Geiselbrecht from SIM says there has been no change in processes in the past 5-6 months, so she’s not sure.  Rasmussen: Problems like this have been widespread here for a while (there is even a community Facebook group called “Dust Bowl“), SIM isn’t the only problem, the important thing will be now that there’s a settlement, how can the community continue to get involved and help.
  • Q from Faith: Why aren’t companies being more supervised, and are they breaking the laws?  A from Wilke: we’re all trying to do our part to hold companies accountable, the Clean Water Act helps us do that, I encourage citizens to help advocate for our efforts to get better protection for our waterways.

Katelynn Kinn and Chris Wilke of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, and Allison Geiselbrecht of Seattle Iron and Metals

  • From panel member Edwin Hernandez Reto (via Spanish interpreter), a few questions: oes SIM have a particular benchmark compared to other companies, does SIM have closed “water circuits,” for wind pollution and dust, how will a wall handle it vs overhead containment, and can the loading dock for scraps can be located somewhere else where it won’t contaminate as much?
    A from Geiselbrecht from SIM:

    • Benchmarks and regulations: SIM is an auto shredder facility, one of only 3 in this state. SIM is the most highly regulated in the state, probably in the US.  There isn’t really a concern about relative benchmarks, but the facility happens to be here.  Auto-shredder facilities don’t “create” PCBs, the issue is that those elements are still in consumer products like cars, dyes, and pigments.  I would highly encourage people to continue with grassroots involvement to get those chemicals removed from manufactured products.
    • Dock: the facility was built and had water treatment systems. All the stormwater that falls on that site is contained, the North Dock water is now routed to main system.  When the South Dock is finished it will do so as well.  A reality of facilities like SIM that recycle large loads of metal is that they really need to be located on/near the water, we have barges come from BC, California, and Alaska (where these materials can’t be processed), access to the waterways is crucial – that’s why a site location like the Duwamish River has made sense for SIM.
    • Full containment:  It’s not feasible to build a building to cover the whole shredding operation, it’s too big and the cranes are too large, and we’re located on the Duwamish, where there can’t be containment fill.  However, there is excellent new technology that we can install, we now have the option to install a “bonnet” on the auto shredder, and a “negative pressure” containment system, this is new European technology (likely the first time it’s being used in the US).  The bonnet is likely to be installed by the end of this year, we first have to retrofit it to fit onto our particular type of shredder, and then get it installed.  We have been in consultation with the city.

Nathan Hart of Seattle Public Utilities, and community member Edwin Hernandez Reto.

  • Q: Who will be doing the dust/chemical testing (an independent agency?) and where can we find the results as a community?  A from Geiselbrecht of SIM: permit-related testing is done by SIM personnel, but I can assure the community that we’re under the microscope and doing this by-the-book and transparently, things are analyzed by 3rd-party lab, we are regulated tightly.  Kinn: Test results are available in PARIS public-record system, she will crunch data and will commit to make it available to the public on Soundkeeper’s website. That dust data doesn’t exist yet, but it will.
  • Q: Can aesthetics be improved; picture a building with nice green walls, rain garden system on the shoreline to capture water, have area youth get involved with beautification efforts.  Geiselbrecht: We do have plans to add greenery, but as it relates to dust mitigation, the data regarding whether trees really help with dust mitigation isn’t conclusive, but it does certainly look better.  It would likely be more effective in a region like the Midwest where multiple rows of trees could be planted, but we just don’t have enough real estate here.  Wilke: Regarding dust monitoring, wind fencing isn’t perfect, but the agreement we’ve made with SIM is a really good deal.  The wind fences aren’t 100% around the facility, but there will be monitoring happening all around the facility, both the amounts and the contents of the dust, using very advanced testing technologies.
  • Q: We know there’s been a lot of pollution, it’s clear that there is pollution. Will shredding operations continue, and who will test tap water in our homes and our gardens?  Geiselbrecht: We talked to Puget Sound Clear Air Agency (PSCAA) and asked them what they’d recommend at a facility like ours, but they focus on residential air-quality issues like wood stoves, not industrial sites, but if you’re a community member those things matter.  What we’re talking about is above and beyond PSCAA.  We fully intend to share data with the Department of Ecology and the community.  SIM is one industrial facility among many that have similar challenges, as well as concerns like traffic right-of-way.  Hopefully the data helps in the future.  Wilke: This is an industrial area and we certainly understand that; we believe that SIM is a key contributor to the issues, but they’ll be making significant improvements and if residents continue to have problems then the issues may be coming from other facilities, where we have work to do.

    Regarding the drinking water testing, Hart from SPU said: We do regular water testing, people can always call SPU and we can come test your tap or provide data for the lines in your neighborhood. That said, all water pipes are pressurized, so there shouldn’t be a possibility of contaminants getting in.   For the neighborhoods we have to test 100 taps annually. You should get a water quality report every year, the biggest issue we typically see is iron from old pipes, but you really shouldn’t see any issues from industrial pollutants in tap water or garden water.

  • Q: We had the fire on the barge, what’s preventing another occurrence of a propane tank being on a ship from Canada where recycling materials like that are not regulated?  Geiselbrecht: In that instance, the barge was from BC and was not SIM, they’re not supposed to have propane-filled tanks, and in fact that company was already issued a notice of violation by the Department of Ecology.  SIM inspects barges and turns away materials all the time; for example, if stuff is oily then we will turn it away. The barge fire was definitely pretty scary.  We wouldn’t have known if the tank had propane in it.
  • Q: Are there watering systems to clean tires of vehicles leaving the facility, to keep the streets cleaner:  Geiselbrecht: Want to commend Ecology and Bo Li; they have been working hard and aggressively on this. The issue with doing wheel washes at SIM is that 1) we have space constraints and can’t drive in and out, and 2) the load sizes and car types coming in and out are all over the place, all shapes and sizes, 3) if vehicles track out water and it freezes on the streets that’s a big safety issue. The commenter noted that she thought CDL around the corner does have a wheel wash.
  • Q from a student attendee: What is the role of SPU compared to the Department of Ecology.  Hart from SPU: We work with the Department of Ecology and EPA.  We are regulators of pipes and drains; since those pipes can carry potential pollutants, we are under a permit to keep things out of the river.  My group focuses on stuff from storm drains, that’s our regulatory niche, and work with Ecology. We inspect facilities like SIM, do about 800 inspections a year with about 10 inspectors; when we see things we encourage changes.  They are not voluntary inspections, they are required regulatory inspections. Rasmussen: There are different levels of enforcement.  Nate: Yes, that’s true, and we often go on inspections with ecology.
  • A spirited question from an attendee: Don’t you all think that lawsuits like this are driving business out of town?  Decent businesses like Sea-Way Marine are gone, which means I can’t get parts any more, and processes like this in the city are a joke. Wilke:  Protecting our waters is everyone’s responsibility.  Sea-Way Marine moved, but not as a result of any lawsuit.  Studies show that only .5% of time does a business close because of environmental regulation.  Those comments are grounded in belief, not data.  Rasmussen: We’re not trying to put people out of business, we’re trying to balance the economics with the communities and wildlife.  The way it was done in this case was a settlement, they didn’t just take them to court, the process worked.

As the meeting wrapped up, a few closing comments:

  • Rasmussen: SIM provides a very important function in our community, they are a recycler of big metals, it’s an important role and a difficult one.  This has been a long time coming (have been trying to engage SIM for 30 years), and I commend Allison Geiselbrecht from SIM for coming to take questions and talk to us.
  • Wilke: Remember, to report a water-pollution issue, call the group’s hotline at 800-42-PUGET or visit https://pugetsoundkeeper.org/ and they’ll look into it and respond.
  • Neighbor Marianne Clark says she’s been “cleaning the river for 30 years” and she commends everyone on the panel for their hard work and cooperation.

1 Reply to "'A safer coexistence': Community briefing on Seattle Iron & Metals pollution settlement for Duwamish Valley"

  • Paulina López March 4, 2019 (9:08 pm)

    Thank you for the great reporting!  

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