Public finally told of carcinogenic toxin in Algona groundwater

ALGONA, Wash. -- Residents in the tiny community of Algona are demanding answers after discovering, more than a year after the fact, that a dangerous toxin from a neighboring Boeing plant had seeped into the groundwater.

The toxin is trichloroethylene, or TCE. The solvent is used in degreasing and cleaning airplane parts. Long periods of exposure to TCE can cause cancer, and test results showed it had seeped into the groundwater.

"We don't know the full extent of this plume of groundwater contamination, and the investigation is taking us into parts of Algona, which are residential areas," said Larry Altose of the state Department of Ecology.

Former Pacific Mayor Rich Hildreth said there are test wells all over the area. But the wells are unmarked, and no one except for Boeing and the state Department of Ecology knew what they were.

In 2011, Hildreth and the mayors of Algona and Auburn were told the wells were being tested to see whether a toxin used by Boeing in the 60s, 70s and 80s had gotten off the Auburn site. They were also told a public notice would be issued in March 2012.

"Here it is a year later, and we have not heard," said Hildreth. "We're just now hearing reports."

Without clear answers, the residents are on edge as they await additional test results.

"All I heard is that it was toxins that Boeing had released in the early 80s, and it just kind of has been growing and been seeping," said Algona resident Sara Byers. "So that's pretty scary."

The residents' main concern is over drinking water contamination, but ecology officials say there is nothing to worry about.

"This plume does not affect, is no where near public drinking water systems in the area. In fact, it is moving in a direction away from the wells," said Altose.

Ecology officals say the toxin is not in the surface water, either; it lies far underground.

What is unknown is whether toxic vapors could rise to the surface someday.

Testing at the YMCA next to Boeing and surrounding buildings so far has found nothing alarming. Additional test wells in and around the neighborhoods of Algona will be drilled in the upcoming weeks.

Both Boeing and state ecology officials agree they should have raised concerns sooner.

"We directed our focus so narrowly on the technical aspects of the work that we frankly neglected to fulfill our responsibility to inform the public," said Altose.

The town's residents, seeking answers, called an emergency meeting with Boeing and state ecology officials on Tuesday night. The residents want to know whether the toxins that lie deep below the surface will somehow reach them.

The meeting was scheduled to be held at 7 p.m. at the Filipino Hall in Algona.