Contaminated Lopez Island property to be auctioned off

By Heather Spaulding

Weekly contributor

There are thousands of known or suspected contaminated sites in Washington, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology. Approximately 50 of those are located in San Juan County, including the Weeks Garage on Lopez.

“There was a report of contamination on the adjacent site also,” Washington State Department of Ecology Communications Manager Larry Altose said. “[The property owners] removed several gallons of potentially contaminated soil and observed several empty containers, but found no other signs of a release to the environment.”

Located on Fisherman Bay Road, the Weeks Garage served as a garage and gas station since the 1940s. The property holds a long history for islanders.

Lyn Sorenson, the grandson of Lloyd Weeks, said he had many fond memories of spending time in the garage, usually watching his grandfather and uncle Carroll Weeks.

“I remember them spending almost the whole day debating whether or not it was a car’s brakes that was the problem,” Sorenson said with a laugh.

It wasn’t just a shop for adults. Often children, including girl scouts, would come in because their bike tires were flat, and Sorenson was proud when his grandfather and uncle let him help. That community history has made Lopez Islanders come together to try to preserve the old station.

“We have been contacted about the property,” San Juan County Land Bank Executive Director Lincoln Bormann said, noting that there are ownership issues as well.

Donna Weeks sold the property in 2015, and the lot is scheduled to be sold again at an auction on March 19 at the San Juan County Court House. Any potential buys at the auction will be facing costs of clean-up on top of the price of the land.

According to Altose, when a known contaminated property sells, the parties involved have to settle liability among themselves.

“We don’t govern that process. The state’s cleanup law creates what’s called joint and several liability for contamination, so it’s in the interest of buyer, seller and even past owners and operators to apportion their financial responsibility,” Altose explained, adding that most of the time, the parties want to earn a no further action determination. This determination assures real estate parties, often including lenders or investors, regarding a site’s risk of pollution liability.

As a result of those risks and liabilities, Bormann said, the land bank exercises extreme caution to avoid potential contamination issues.

“Clean-up costs and potential liabilities can be astronomical,” Bormann said. “We could pursue a property with questions still unanswered but would assess the extent of the problem during our feasibility period,” Bormann continued adding that the land bank would likely not move forward if evidence of a bigger problem emerged.

According to site inspection documents, DOE was notified by the new property owners in 2016 that there were contamination issues. The site has three above-ground tanks, and an investigation by DOE showed that benzene, petroleum, diesel petroleum and lead were found at levels above the Model Toxic Control Act. Washington’s MTCA funds and directs the investigation, clean up and prevention of sites that are contaminated by hazardous substances.

In 2019, a field investigation was complete. Altose explained that the delay in enforcement was because the DOE wanted to give the property owners a chance to clean up the contamination. For the health and safety of humans and the environment, the DOE typically encourages speedy clean up, according to Altose.

“If there’s a spill or discovery of contamination, the owner or other party responsible can avoid listing if the cleanup is completed within 90 days, and this can be extended to 180 days. Beyond that, sooner is better with spills and contamination,” he said.

According to DOE reports, as well as those done by a private firm named Aspect Consulting, contamination was not found near groundwater. Little to no contamination was found, according to the Aspect reports, deeper than 15 feet. A vapor test was also completed, which came back showing little to no chemical vapors from the contamination. Soil, according to the documents is the main source of concern.

To clean-up contaminated soil, Altose explained, the most common method is to haul it off site. “Where it goes depends on the level of contamination, and the specific contaminant[s] in the soil. The soil is tested. If the concentration of the contaminant[s] are below dangerous waste thresholds, the soil can go into a municipal waste landfill,” Altose explained. “If the testing shows that the soil falls within a dangerous waste designation, it is taken to a specialized landfill that can accept this type of waste.”

For San Juan County, this would mean hauling it off-island, exponentially increasing the clean-up costs.

Occasionally the soil is excavated and treated on site, then returned to its original location.

“There also are technologies that can treat soil in place. This depends on the type and nature of the contaminant. Also, treatment can require considerable time, and most liable parties opt for removal,” Altose said.

With the possibility of new ownership, it remains to be seen how the property will be cleaned up, or how it might be preserved or developed.

“It gave us a good life,” Donna Weeks said. “And I hope whoever buys it enjoys it.”