County Considers Purchasing Toxic Property

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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.

About Riley Sweeney

Citizen Journalist • Member since Aug 10, 2009

Riley Sweeney, raised in the Pacific Northwest, moved to Bellingham during the Bush years, worked on a cross-section of political campaigns during the Obama years, and then fled to the [...]

Comments by Readers

Barbara Perry

Mar 19, 2014

Thank you Riley Sweeney for reporting this.  I would not only like to read about the environmental findings and hope the County Council does demand this investigation.

Also, I would like to know if the examiner had conflict of interest issues over the years serving as both the examiner and land holder.

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Doug Karlberg

Mar 20, 2014

Full disclosure. For last year or so I worked for a local firm which cleans up petroleum tanks and contamination, until I managed to get my leg broke by the excavator track. Needless to say I have a little time on my hands, so I thought I would weigh in and try to shed some light generally on what I have learned over the last year.

I love Riley’s writing and passion for politics. Often he is more of community educator about politics.
I don’t wish to diminish this passion one iota, but there may be a couple of things I can clear up.

First from Riley’s article: “a building that is currently leaking toxins into our ground water”

The building is not leaking anything that I am aware of. A morgue leaking toxins?  Probably a poor choice of words, something I am guilty of all too often.

Here is what I know. The pollution is from an old gas station. The tanks were removed years ago, and this property was flagged so it could not be sold without future clean up. Nothing is leaking into the ground. This is old well known legacy contamination.

Second, like most property owners Mr. Goldfogel is likely an innocent party to the pollution, but he is one way or another going to have to pay to clean it up. I doubt he was ever in the gas station business. This happens all too frequently that a person has bought a piece of land, only to discover decades later it has pollution and although they did not cause the pollution, they are going to be required to clean it up at often great expense.

Innocent people sometimes lose their retirement cleaning up somebody else’s mess. It does not feel fair.

I do not know the specifics of this piece of land, but in the end, we may owe Mr. Goldfogel our gratitude as he cleans up this pollution, which he did not cause. He is discounting the value of the land by $1,000,000 which ultimately will pay for the clean-up; Not the taxpayer, unless the clean-up exceeds $1,000,000.

Secondly, it is not just the banks, but the state and federal regulators who still insist the property is cleaned up prior to a sale being completed. Being an optimist, I doubt that the regulators will exempt the government from their own regulations. Politically I cannot believe the County will not clean it up, as Mr. Goldfogel is essentially paying for it with a $1,000,000 price reduction.

Dan McShane in real life is an excellent geologist and has a good reputation. He has a political life, and while not always agreeing with Dan, he gave the public his expert advice freely while in public life. Now he is just trying to make a living, and he is a certified expert in this arena.

Jack Louws and Dan McShane are in a conspiracy together. The two of them are conspiring to save the taxpayers some money on buying the land at a $1,000,000 discount and cleaning up the land for less than the discount. That would ultimately save the taxpayer money, which we should applaud.

Whether they are successful at cleaning up the land for less than a $1,000,000 is still an open question, but if they are successful, we should be ready to give them our praise for their critical analysis.

Cleaning up polluted properties has some risk. Even with test samples, there are always unknowns that come up. Every time I have been involved, something unexpected is discovered. These are more akin to an archaeological dig, than simply digging a hole in the ground to put in a basement.

When cleaning up one of these sites, usually an experienced contractor is hired, and a firm like Dan McShane owns. Extensive sampling is ongoing literally with each shovel of dirt. Crew in the hole which is what I was doing are highly skilled dirt sniffers (not). Petroleum is pretty easy to smell. An expert geologist supervises the work, and when the dirt sniffers find suspect dirt, they pass up sample to the geologists, which are called dirt squeezers, and they test the dirt with calibrated instruments. If anything is suspect it is rushed to a lab for confirmation. This process is repeated over and over again, until regulators are satisfied that all the pollution is cleaned up, right to the property line. If there is a vein of polluted soil that extends past the property line then this property is flagged, and any excavation on this property in the future are required to be on a sharp look-out for additional pollution, and clean and dispose of any polluted soils.

The polluted soil is then trucked to an incinerator for burning off the petroleum.
This process does a pretty good job at cleaning up this legacy pollution.

Cleaning up legacy pollution is not an easy task, but as time goes on more and more of these sites are cleaned up each year. This is a chance to get this site cleaned up.

I have no idea about the arrangement the County has with the morgue, but I suspect that being a Coroner is a rather thankless job, and there are not many waiting in line to do this critical job. We need facts.

People like Jack Louws and Dan McShane who have stepped up for public service get a lot of scrutiny, and I worry that we forget to give them praise when they do a good job.

Praise when due,  is how we attract well qualified people to hold office.

We shall see how this turns out, but as for me, I am going to wait for all the facts, prior to coming to a conclusion.

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Riley Sweeney

Mar 24, 2014

Thank you for your praise, Doug.

You are right that the contamination comes from the old gas station, not the building itself - a detail I get into down in the second paragraph. The toxins that are there are seeping into the ground water, that’s what the environmental assessment that McShane conducted said.

As for the regulators requiring the cleanup, it depends on the size of the property and the amount of damage - in other words, over my pay grade. I consulted with a local environmental lawyer and she said that a bank would require the clean up but it is possible that the county could avoid having to do that.

I’m not trying to assign blame here, I just wanted to shine a spotlight on a potentially toxic purchase the county was considering. Conspiracies and all that are outside of my area of expertise.

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