State Grant Awarded to Clean Up NEC’s 9th Street Parcel

The NEC's 9th Street lot in Arcata, photographed in 2011. The former NEC office burned down in 2001. Photo: Martin Swett.
The NEC’s 9th Street lot in Arcata, photographed in 2011. The former NEC office burned down in 2001. Photo: Martin Swett.

In April, the State Water Resources Control Board approved a grant from its Site Cleanup Subaccount Program to fully remediate the NEC’s Ninth Street parcel, which has been vacant since 2001. Funding in the amount of $607,714 will be available to fully remediate the site, which is now one of the few undeveloped parcels near the Arcata Plaza. SHN Geologists & Engineers, Inc. of Eureka will continue to lead the cleanup efforts, with oversight by a subcommittee of the NEC Board of Directors.

The grant program was established by the state legislature in 2014 to clean up contaminated sites where those responsible for the contamination cannot be held accountable. In the NEC’s case, the source of contamination was a dry cleaning business formerly located on the property, the owners of which are deceased. Although current property owners are often responsible for such cleanups, eligibility for Site Cleanup Subaccount Program funds requires evidence of inability to pay for the cleanup.

In 1982, the Northcoast Environmental Center moved to 879 9th Street in Arcata. The property was later donated to the NEC by several board members who had purchased the site. In 2001, a fire (that began on a neighboring property) destroyed the NEC headquarters, along with both adjacent buildings. After the fire, plans to rebuild were thwarted by the discovery of perchloroethylene, a toxic chemical used by a dry cleaning business on the site until sometime in the 1980s. Perchloroethylene (also known as “perc” or PCE) is a persistent contaminant that is often difficult and expensive to remediate, since its density causes it to sink into groundwater. During the tenure of the business, this chemical leaked into the soil below, leaving the subsequent landowner—the NEC—to do the cleanup.

The NEC had been given approval to “cap-and-build,” which would have entombed the soil under a cement slab, allowing the property to be sold “as-is” for the next owner to legally build upon. Following that course of action would have left the soil contaminated, potentially impacting groundwater, and possibly Jolly Giant Creek, which drains to Humboldt Bay. The NEC Board of Directors felt that the only ethical course of action was to seek grant funds to ensure the lot is clean before selling it.

An old underground heating oil storage tank was removed, and once the perc was discovered, monitoring wells were installed and sampling of soil, groundwater, and soil vapor was done to determine the extent of contamination.

In 2011, contaminated soil was excavated under a $200,000 Brownsfield grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Humboldt Area Foundation and individual donors contributed $40,000 in matching funds required by the EPA. After excavating the contaminated soil, bioremediation chemicals were injected to further decrease the levels of perc in the groundwater. Unfortunately that failed, and although levels are lower than they once were, there are remaining traces of the chemical and its breakdown products that must be removed. Thanks to the State Water Board, NEC will now have the resources to fully clean up the site. The process is expected to take several years.