'Brockovich' carcinogen found at Salem CTEC

SALEM, Ore. -- High levels of hexavalent chromium have been found in soil and groundwater at the Salem-Keizer School District’s new Career Technical Education Center.

The chemical compound is best known as the carcinogen in the movie “Erin Brockovich,” which is based on a true story about contaminated drinking water in Hinkley, Calif.

The district has fenced off the contaminated areas and officials stress that occupants are not in danger.

“Initial testing before CTEC opened indicated that the center was safe for occupancy, and that is still the case,” Superintendent Christy Perry said in a letter sent to students and parents Wednesday.

This chemical can be dangerous in some situations, but in this case is being managed and does not pose a risk. -- Christy Perry, Superintendent of Salem-Keizer School District

“This chemical can be dangerous in some situations, but in this case is being managed and does not pose a risk,” Perry wrote.

Among the effects of hexavalent chromium exposure are cancer, skin and respiratory irritation, kidney damage, eye and nose irritation and damage, and skin problems.

The center, at 3501 Portland Road NE, was created as a public-private partnership between the school district and Mountain West Career Technical Institute. About 350 students and 22 staffers use the building.

The center opened in August 2015 in a 150,000-square-foot facility formerly occupied by Neilsen Manufacturing, which made precision sheet metal and electro-mechanical products. Hexavalent chromium was generated during chrome plating and chromating.

The building had been vacant for eight years. The land still is owned by Suntek Oregon LLC, which is run by the Neilsen family, according to the Marion County Assessor.  Mountain West Career Technical Institute purchased the building in July 2014 for $3.6 million.

Mountain West Career Technical Institute is an assumed business name used by a for-profit company called Department of Mission Advancement. That company is owned by Salem developer Larry Tokarski’s Mountain West Investment Corporation.

The plan is to expand the center by about 20,000 square feet per year, adding additional programs and students. By 2020, the partnership hopes to have 10 to 14 programs and 45 staff members serving about 1,100 students.

Eventually, the property will be donated to the school district, although an exact plan for that has not been developed, district spokesman Jay Remy said.

The most recent testing, in August and September, was done as part of the expansion and transfer process, Remy said.

The district asked environmental consultant EVREN Northwest to review the results.

They show shallow soil and ground water have been contaminated with hexavalent chromium at levels that exceed the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s risk-based concentrations, the company wrote in a letter to the district this week.

Those include limits set for ingestion, skin contact and inhalation; for leaching to groundwater; and for ingestion and inhalation from tapwater.

Our initial feeling is that the site is safe for the kids and the workers there. -- Don Hanson, DEQ's acting environmental cleanup manager

However, groundwater isn’t and won’t be used for drinking, the consultant said. The area within the building where chromating took place has been physically walled off from the area used for classes. And most of the areas with impacted soil are covered by buildings or asphalt.

The area that isn’t covered could lead to exposure unless access is controlled, the company said. It recommended temporarily fencing the remaining area and eventually installing permanent fencing or capping the ground.

The testing company notified DEQ about the results Wednesday afternoon, said Don Hanson, DEQ’s acting environmental cleanup manager.

“Our initial feeling is that the site is safe for the kids and the workers there,” Hanson said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency performed sampling at the site in the late 1980s, and said additional investigation might be warranted, Hanson said. DEQ did not do any testing.

“We didn’t prioritize it as a very high priority. We can’t work on every site all the time,” he said. “But that was all based on it being a metal plating shop. It wasn’t based on it being a school.”

An environmental site assessment would have been required if the district had purchased the property, Hanson said.

“This would have come up as a red flag,” he said.

tloew@statesmanjournal.com, 503-399-6779 or follow at Twitter.com/Tracy_Loew

KGW


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