Whatcom County is close to purchasing the building at 1500 N. State St., a building that is currently leaking toxins into our groundwater. The building, currently home to our medical examiner's office (i.e. coroner) and morgue, is owned by Gary Goldfogel, our medical examiner. That's right, our coroner actually owns the morgue and the county just leases it from him. Goldfogel also owns an environmental testing business that operates out of the same building called “Avocet Environmental Testing”.
However, beneath this building there is petroleum contamination leaking off site. The neighboring parking lot used to be a gas station and it is reasonable to assume some of the chemicals are left over from that business.
Back in November, Goldfogel offered to sell the property (and the neighboring parking lot at 211 E. Champion St.) to the county for $2.6 million, which is below market value. The county is considering his offer. If this property was sold between two private citizens, most likely the bank funding the mortgage would require the environmental damage be cleaned up as part of the sale. However, since the county can buy the property outright, no such clean up would be required.
The Bellingham Herald covered this issue a few weeks ago but now it looks like the purchase will go forward without a plan to clean up the property. Interestingly enough, the November sales agreement (available here) states that Goldfogel has, “no actual knowledge of the release of or presence of hazardous materials.” After coverage in the Herald, it would be difficult for Goldfogel to make that claim in a more current agreement.
I spoke to Jack Louws about this issue and he said the property is currently under negotiation and he will be bringing a proposal forward for the County Council to approve in the next couple of weeks. “I know about the environmental issues and that is part of our consideration.” Beyond that, he could not speak to the specifics.
In December, the county hired Stratum Group (Dan McShane's geological consulting firm) to conduct a “Phase II Soil, Groundwater and Indoor Air Quality Sampling Investigation Report” which is a fancy way of saying, “Check and see if there is anything I need to know about this before I buy it.” You can see the executive summary here.
The report clearly outlines the environmental hazards presented by the property. “Based on our sampling investigation, contaminated soil and groundwater is present at 1500 North State Street and contaminated soil is present at 211 E. Champion Street that exceeds the Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA) cleanup standard for unrestricted land use.” The report further concluded that, “petroleum may be migrating off-site” and “future excavations at the site could cause soil and groundwater contacts that would pose a risk to human health or the environment.”
While it is easy to see the potential legal hazards of assuming responsibility for a toxic property, I find it even more curious that our medical examiner owns the morgue and the county merely rents the space from him. I hope the County Council takes a good long look at this deal before signing on the dotted line.