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Cleanup of Ekotek site may finally start

After a decade of preliminary efforts and litigation, rehabilitation of the seven-acre Petrochem-Ekotek Superfund cleanup site is finally on the horizon.

The north Salt Lake parcel once was home to Ekotek's oil recycler and hazardous waste disposal operation and, in earlier years, other recycling and petroleum refining facilities.When the Environmental Protection Agency first took over the site in November 1988, water contaminated with pesticides and cancer-causing compounds was flowing off the property.

Immediate threats such as the pools of water, waste barrels and underground storage tanks were removed. Prosecution of Ekotek's president, other litigation and years of studies followed.

Now, a final consent decree - the last step before a permanent cleanup begins - is under review by the EPA and the Department of Justice. Approval by the agencies and a judge is expected sometime this month, which would allow work to begin this spring, said Russ LeClerc, EPA's remedial project manager in Denver.

Peter Von Sivers, vice chairman of the Capitol Hill Neighborhood Council, said residents are cautiously optimistic. "We're all still numb from the length of time it took," he said.

The consent decree also could benefit hundreds of businesses, government agencies and others who sent oil to the site for recycling, not knowing Ekotek was violating environmental laws.

Although Ekotek's president has so far escaped personal liability for the cleanup costs, federal Superfund laws held other businesses liable as generators of the waste.

However, the final tab may be less than initially predicted, and that may lead to rebates under the decree.

"We've collected more money than we probably need," EPA's LeClerc said. "Obviously, we have to keep our fingers crossed."

EPA's final plan calls for demolishing some of the dilapidated buildings on the site and removing badly contaminated soil, including dirt tainted with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Less-contaminated soil will be buried under a 42-inch earthen cap.

As for the oil and other contaminants floating in the water table below the site, the EPA contends that excavating the soils laden with the compounds will remove the source of further groundwater contamination.

The groundwater itself will essentially be left alone, allowing biodegradation to take its course.

Monitoring wells will be drilled and groundwater testing will continue during the cleanup. The EPA hopes to be done with the site by 2000, LeClerc said.

The state of Utah favored an earlier proposal to remove the less-tainted dirt from the site, too.

Neighbors, meantime, had wanted a more aggressive treatment of the groundwater and removal of topsoil from the entire site.

Siver's council plans to watch the cleanup carefully with the help of its own geologist, funded by an EPA community grant. For now, the neighborhood is lobbying for the destruction of other shabby buildings on the site that are not covered by the EPA plan.

So far, a committee of businesses that sent wastes to the Ekotek site has collected and spent $21 million on the emergency cleanup and subsequent studies and planning. The committee sued more than 1,000 other contributors, and fewer than 10 defendants are left, said lead counsel Paul D. Phillips in Denver.

A few hundred businesses settled with the EPA instead, raising $8.5 million for the final phase. The EPA now estimates about $6.1 million is needed.

But Phillips said the committee's consultants believe the cleanup will cost between $9 million and $12 million. The committee went to trial in January against the final major holdout, Morrison Knudsen.

The company has acknowledged it owned the east side of the Ekotek site for years and sent oil and other wastes to a previous recycling company, which was located on the west side.