One of the most toxic dumps in Oregon remains in legal limbo.
A deal cut by the state with the company that owns the site has now been dropped. And the Department of Environmental Quality has no plans – or money – to clean it up.
About 60 miles north of Lakeview a barbed wire fence surrounds a patch of desert. Warning signs tell people to stay away.
Boyd Levet remembers watching in 1976 as the dump was created.
“It was probably just acres but it seemed like miles and miles of barrels just lined up in rows. It was a sight you would not expect to see in a place as beautiful as Oregon,” says Levet, who was a reporter back then for KOIN-TV.
25,513 barrels containing more than 1 million gallons of pesticide had been stacked next to Alkali Lake. They promptly started leaking.
Levet’s old news film shows the state of Oregon sent in bulldozers. They didn’t just bury the drums. They crushed them, allowing more toxics to pour out.
(Archival footage of the Alkali Lake site, shot in 1976 by KOIN-TV. Posted to YouTube by Crag Law Center.)
Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality pushed the 25-thousand crushed barrels in trenches, then shoved dirt on top.
The trenches were not lined.
The dioxin-laced pesticides quickly reached the water table below, just 3- to 6-feet down.
“The groundwater near the landfill is very contaminated,” says Bob Schwarz, DEQ’s current project manager over the Alkali Lake Disposal Site. He adds:
“The chemicals caused the water to be a bright red color. Pretty striking to see.”
The state has put up a fence around it. Tests have measured contaminated ground water spreading nearly half a mile underground. The nearest families live 3 miles away. And the town of Christmas Valley is about 30 miles to the west.
“I would say if it was near any population center, even a town as small as Christmas Valley it could very well have been declared a Superfund site,” Schwarz says.
Former Lake County Commissioner J.R. Stewart is angry that the state does not intend to clean up the chemical dumpsite.
“If it’s not affecting you it’s not a problem. Well, it’s affecting Lake County,” he says. “It’s affecting the state of Oregon and it has the potential, in time, to be a great effect and a danger. Why not remedy a very bad situation as soon as possible, rather than turn a blind eye until you absolutely get beat over the head and have to do it?”
Stewart has been to the site several times. He says he can still smell the chemicals there. DEQ says those chemicals dissipate in the wind so they are no hazard as long as people stay away.
A study for the EPA last year found contaminated water reaching the surface in an area known as habitat for the threatened western snowy plover. No studies have been done on whether they have been affected.
The company that originally made the Agent Orange has been sold several times since. The current owner is Bayer CropScience. In a written statement, a company spokesman says that Bayer CropScience thought it had reached “a fair and appropriate resolution” with DEQ in 2009.
The settlement did not address cleanup or future testing. Bayer would have paid 700-thousand dollars towards the 2-million dollars taxpayers have already spent fencing, burying and keeping tabs on the site. And if anyone else sued, Bayer would have paid 20% while taxpayers would cover 80 percent of litigation costs.
Lake County residents and officials filed objections, saying the proposed settlement let the company off the hook.
“The chemical companies you’re talking about are multi-billion dollar corporations. Come on,” Stewart says. “Let’s fight for what we know is right and get it done.”
Late last year, without any public announcement, DEQ quietly dropped the settlement. It has made no decision about pursuing the company. It has no plans to clean up the site, which could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Original Proposed DEQ Deal with Bayer CropScience. It was never adopted.
“It was concluded that a cleanup was not required based on what the regulations define as acceptable risk,” the DEQ’s Schwarz says.
Boyd Levet, who witnessed the original burial of all those drums, says he is not surprised that Oregon is still dealing with this toxic legacy 40 years later.
“All of us knew at that time this would not go away. It was not being made to go away,” Levet says. “The problem was literally being buried… And it was quite clear at the time this was not a solution to the problem at Alkali Lake.”
DEQ plans to continue testing the water every couple of years – and keep the site off limits permanently.