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Where apples once grew, contaminated soil lingers

Tony Schick/OPB/EarthFix

YAKIMA, Wash. -- At homes and day care centers throughout central Washington, children play in yards contaminated with lead and arsenic.

The state’s Department of Ecology knows about this, and has for decades.

But many parents and caregivers still do not, despite the risks these chemicals pose specifically to children.

Until the 1950s, Northwest apple growers spent decades spraying lead arsenate pesticides in a never-ceasing battle against the codling moth, which once threatened to derail the country’s most productive tree fruit region.

That spraying contaminated an estimated 187,000 acres of former orchard lands throughout Washington — an area that exceeds the size of Seattle and Portland combined.

As a result, the soil at hundreds of properties contains levels of lead and arsenic that, through long-term exposure, can lower children's IQs, cause behavioral problems or increase cancer risks later in life.

Washington, unlike many states, has studied and mapped the extent of lead and arsenic contamination. It cleaned up 26 public schools on former orchards.

But the apple industry and politicians resisted efforts to make a bigger issue of contamination on former orchards. Evidence of actual exposures was scant, they said; too much noise about lead and arsenic would hurt the region’s apple growers, they contended.

Meanwhile, the state’s cleanup efforts faded.


Public funds for orchard-era pollution dried up before two schools with contaminated soil were cleaned up. Legislative efforts were blocked. Recommended cleanups and exposure studies were shelved. Awareness campaigns stalled. Data was lost. 

Meanwhile, the contamination lingers and families have been left in the dark.

“Ecology is aware of all this stuff. They have a legal right to enforce this stuff, but they’re choosing not to,” said Frank Peryea, who studied lead and arsenic for decades with Washington State University. He said state regulators have no easy answer.

Contamination not disclosed

The property developer and the government knew Norm Hepner’s subdivision was contaminated decades before he bought his house. Nobody told him.

Heritage Hills, on the outskirts of Yakima, was built on an old orchard. A private firm tested the property in 1993. Its report to the developer included two samples showing lead and arsenic several times above the threshold the state uses as its standard for cleanups. It recommended “no further action” was necessary.

A concerned local attorney sent a letter to the Department of Ecology, including that report.

But the state never required a cleanup at Heritage Hills. New-construction homes started popping up in the 2000s. By the time Hepner bought his a few years ago -- not from the developer but from its first owner  -- he said high lead and arsenic levels were not disclosed, as state law requires for known soil contamination.

Hepner instead discovered it because, until 2014, he handled toxic cleanups for Ecology. Now retired and working independently, Hepner said his former agency hasn’t done enough to protect children from exposure to lead and arsenic.

“I think they’ve failed children from age 0-5, and I think they’ve failed the general public,” he said.

Hepner inverted his soil to bring clean dirt to the surface. He covered parts of his yard in pea gravel or bark. 

He said Ecology should ensure those precautions are taken at homes, parks and day care centers throughout the region. He contends the state spends too much of its toxic cleanup fund on sites such as ports and retired gas stations, where toxic chemicals exist but vulnerable populations are less likely to come into contact with them.

“They might care, but they don’t care enough,” Hepner said of his former employer. “Because there’s more that they could do.”

Valerie Bound, toxics cleanup manager for Ecology in Central Washington and Hepner’s former boss, does not discredit him or his concerns.

But Bound has a staff of 12 and limited funding for roughly 500 contaminated sites needing attention, she said. Lately, the agency and the legislature have set other priorities.

“I care. I think we all care,” Bound said. ‘Does caring translate into money? Does it translate into resources?” 

Washington law exempts farmers from liability for pesticides they applied legally, so the state cannot force them to pay for cleanup.

Bound said she has not asked for more money for lead and arsenic cleanup, nor does she plan to.

She said the public has not pushed for more action.

EarthFix tested multiple samples from 20 residential properties in Yakima and Wenatchee using methods recommended by Ecology. Samples from 15 of those contained arsenic or lead above Washington’s cleanup threshold. One resident from that sampling was aware of potential lead arsenate contamination.

Do you enjoy Washington apples? Thank lead arsenate

It started with the worm in the apple.

At the turn of the 20th century, the codling moth wreaked havoc on Washington’s apple industry. Orchardists dumped crate after crate of apples that were inedible and rotten to the core with the brown mush of larval excrement.

Without something to control the pest, what’s now the most productive apple-growing region in the country might never have been.

Credit Courtesy of the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center
Orchardists spray lead arsenate pesticides on tree fruit crops in Washington state. At the time, the pesticide was the only effective control for the destructive codling moth, and it saved Washington's apple industry.

“If we were not controlling codling moth, this river would be full of apples floating down it,” said Jack Pheasant, pointing to the Columbia River where it flows past downtown Wenatchee. Pheasant, 76, grew up on an orchard near Tonasket and now owns a 50-acre orchard south of Wenatchee.

“They had no place to dump it, so you’d dump it in the river,” he said.

The introduction of lead arsenate in 1905 changed that. The industry flourished with the pesticide in widespread use for decades. Orchardists mixed it and sprayed from wagons. Some pumped it through built-in irrigators.

But by the 1930s, the codling moth grew resistant. Lead arsenate began to lose its effectiveness -- much like Roundup on modern cornfields where weeds became more resistant to the chemical. Orchardists countered this by spraying heavier doses with higher frequency. This lasted for nearly two decades.

Pheasant remembers watching his father spray continually, starting again at one end as soon as he finished on the other.

“The only way you could protect your apples was by keeping them constantly coated with the material, so that codling moth would hopefully not penetrate,” Pheasant said.

By the late 1940s, growers replaced lead arsenate with a chemical known as DDT. It, too, was later banned because of its harm to human health and the environment.

Lead and arsenic do not break down in soil and migrate far less than DDT and other pesticides used since. Anything spilled or sprayed that reached the ground 100 years ago is still within the top foot of soil, said Frank Peryea, professor emeritus at Washington State University’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee.

Peryea spent decades studying lead and arsenic contamination. He served on a state task force studying contamination in 2003, and now calls the state’s inaction in central Washington “disappointing but not unexpected.”

Peryea said one of the safest ways to handle lead and arsenic in orchard soil is to keep the property in production as an orchard. That limits children’s exposure. And research has shown the contamination does not transfer from the roots into the fruit.

That has happened more in Oregon. The state has stricter land-use laws for converting farmland to other uses. Conversion has happened there, but state officials do not know the extent of contamination. Efforts to study, map and clean up lingering pesticides on converted farmland in Oregon have not been as thorough or as systematic as those in Washington.

Cleaning up land contaminated with lead arsenate can be costly. Peryea said it has neared $1 million per acre in some cases to excavate, dispose of the contaminated soil and replace it with clean dirt.

There are simple steps to prevent exposure like covering bare dirt, frequent hand washing, leaving shoes outside and gardening in raised beds.

“If I lived in a place that was was an old orchard, I’d be very careful about letting my kids play in the soil,” Peryea said.

Only 4 percent of children tested for lead

Chronic lead exposure does its damage in early childhood. Arsenic’s effects appears later in life. Lead in a child’s blood causes behavioral problems, lowered IQ and stunted growth. Health officials say no level of lead in a child’s blood is safe. Repeated arsenic exposure is linked to heart disease, diabetes and various forms of cancer.

Exposure from soil can happen through either direct or incidental ingestion or through inhalation of soil turned to dust.

A growing body of research across the country points to soil as a prominent cause of lead exposure for children, with some studies concluding it’s a more likely source of exposure than lead paint from old homes.

However, attempts to measure the public health impact from soil contamination in Washington specifically have been inconclusive.

A study in the Puget Sound region linked arsenic exposure with soil contamination near smelter sites in the 1980s. Washington Department of Health research in the 1990s found living in central Washington increases the risk of lead exposure in children, and the agency cited lead arsenate contamination as a possible explanation. 

Not enough data exists to determine whether exposure has or has not caused problems.

“We are concerned that legacy lead exposure from lead-arsenate pesticides may be happening in central Washington,” said Lauren Jenks, director of the Office of Environmental Public Health Sciences for the Washington Department of Health. “At this time we don’t have the quality of data we would need in order to determine exactly what led to central Washington counties appearing at higher risk of lead poisoning.”

Those data gaps are due, in part, to the fact that only 4 percent of children in Washington are tested annually for lead exposure, meaning many cases go unseen, and trends are difficult to identify with certainty. Washington had money to survey a few hundred children for arsenic exposure in 2011, but the state has no program for tracking arsenic exposure the same way it does for lead.

Efforts to address lead arsenate contamination can be costly and, on private property, intrusive. Opponents of those efforts have pointed to the lack of proven exposure cases as proof that lead arsenate is not a real problem.  Likewise, state regulators struggled to raise awareness and support for their efforts without hard evidence of people affected.

'No eating dirt back here'

Not knowing any better, Jennifer Garcia did one of the few things you are definitely not supposed to do if your soil contains high levels of lead or arsenic. She planted a vegetable garden for her kids.

A lifelong resident of the Yakima area, she knew the house she and her husband, Ivan, and their two children moved into five years ago was likely built on an old orchard. But she didn’t know that meant her soil was contaminated.

Credit Lena Jackson
Jennifer Garcia with her daughter, Hannah, 2. Garcia found out the soil in her yard tested high for arsenic. It’s left over from pesticides sprayed before the 1950s on this same piece of land, when it was an orchard.

“I knew they’ve been making developments in old orchard areas,” Garcia said. “I wondered if there was any type of contamination, but had hoped, or had assumed, that it would be healthy. That they would take care of that.”

EarthFix took four samples from Garcia’s yard. Each one showed arsenic above the state cleanup threshold of 20 parts per million. Lead levels were above the natural background levels, indicating some remnants of pesticides, but were below cleanup thresholds. One of those high arsenic levels came from her side yard, a patch of bare, dusty dirt where Garcia planted pumpkins, tomatoes and cucumbers for her kids.

On a warm day in early September, her children, Noah, 6, and Hannah, 2, played in the backyard, throwing dirt and rocks.

“No eating dirt back here, guys,” she told them after learning of the sample results.

Garcia sent Noah off to school for the first time this year. She knows she can’t eliminate risk for her children. But she’d like to control what she can. And she knows there are some steps she can take to prevent arsenic exposure.

She said she’s disappointed more isn’t being done to raise awareness or clean up residential properties. In Puget Sound, where smelter emissions left similar lead and arsenic contamination across nearly 400,000 acres, the state has a significant outreach program, with a van, on-air commercials and mascots like Digger the Dog. Residents there can search their address for contamination and cleanup information. For former orchard contamination, Ecology has an online brochure.

“I think that it’s an important thing that people need to be educated about and know,” Garcia said. “If there was concern enough that they’re working on public schools. Well, if that’s a concern, then I’d think you’d spend just as much time -- your little ones, especially, at home.”

Goals unmet

Steven Kelley wanted people like the Garcias to know when they bought a home on an old orchard.

Kelley is a real estate agent who previously lived in the Wenatchee area and served as co-chair of the state’s 2003 task force on lead and arsenic contamination.

He brought to the Washington Association of Realtors the task force’s recommendations calling for more disclosure, training for Realtors and educational newsletters.

The association’s endorsement of those recommendations was seen as vital to winning approval in the state Legislature and convincing local Realtors to put them into practice.

But Kelley said he was never given the opportunity to present them.

“I was livid, obviously,” he said.

Washington now requires disclosure for vacant land the same way it does for residential homes. Some local Realtors say they use voluntary environmental disclosure forms that mention orchards.

Representatives from the Washington Association of Realtors said they could not confirm Kelley’s version of events. The association’s policy director said he was not aware of concerns about lead or arsenate from former orchards in Central Washington.

Many items on the 12-year-old list of recommendations from the state’s task force remain unfulfilled. Among them:

  • The Department of Ecology was charged with first cleaning up schools, followed by parks and day care centers. Twenty-six schools have been cleaned, but two with contamination are unfinished. Two parks have been cleaned, but most remain untested. No day care centers on former orchards have been tested or cleaned up by the state.
  • Task force members urged the state to spend more time and money studying exposure in order to determine what health effects the soil actually had before spending millions on cleanups. That was not done.
  • The task force encouraged Ecology to continuously update and expand its database of former orchards. Maps created in 2003 for the task force were to be the starting point. The agency has not updated it over the years. When EarthFix submitted a public disclosure request for the database, the agency said it could not provide it because it did not have one.

Bound, the cleanup manager for Ecology, said that at one time, lead and arsenic cleanup carried a lot of momentum. Now, she said she was unsure whether Ecology would revisit it.
“Things ebb and flow. When I first started here, that was all people wanted to talk about. It was a large part of what I worked on,” she said. “I don’t think we have -- we haven’t solved the problem. I still think it’s an issue.”

Concerns about repeat of Alar scare

Bound’s agency faced resistance on lead arsenate before the statewide task force report was ever published.

Politicians east of the Cascades opposed testing, fearing too much noise about lead and arsenic would cut through the industry like the Alar “scare” in 1989, when a report by CBS’s 60 Minutes called the growth and color-enhancing chemical a dangerous carcinogen, and public reaction cost the industry millions.

Many in the region feared an Alar repeat, a decline in property values, or just a whole lot of taxpayer money being spent to clean up soils when actual exposure cases were not well-documented.

In 2002, Jim Clements, then a state representative from the Yakima area, called lead arsenate a “phantom issue” and successfully halted Ecology’s plan to ask 100 Yakima-area property owners’ permission to collect soil samples. When the task force published its report in 2003, one task force member from the apple industry refused to sign it. Another task force member called it a “waste of money."

In 2005, a bill moved through the Washington Legislature that would have enacted some of the key recommendations, including mandatory testing for child care centers. When introduced, the bill explicitly mentioned lead arsenate pesticide and applied to the entire state. When the bill finally passed, all references to pesticides were removed and it pertained only to lands west of the Cascade mountains, where only a small fraction of Washington apples are grown.

Dave Upthegrove, then a state representative from Des Moines, sponsored the bill. He said lawmakers in eastern Washington opposed the bill. They feared a repeat of the Alar scare. Upthegrove said passing a statewide bill was “too big of a political hurdle."

“You don't know how much I appreciate the amendment you put on this bill,” Clements, a longtime orchardist and former Washington State Apple Commissioner, told his colleagues in the Washington House of Representatives before the bill passed. 

In a recent interview, Clements said he remains convinced there is no evidence that lead arsenic posed a risk.

“My grandmother, my family, my extended families, my wife and I raised our children on these orchards,” he said. “They played in the dirt, they played in the soil. We had gardens, we had fruit trees of every sort. And there wasn’t anything that would ever indicate there was a problem.”

'Part of your job is to take care of it'

Jose Mendoza wanted his child care center’s soil tested more than Ecology wanted to test it.

Mendoza owns Rainbow Kidz early learning center, with several locations in and near Yakima.

Because Rainbow Kidz is east of the Cascades, laws requiring day care testing for soil contamination never applied. But he wanted to know.

“It’s very important to know: how safe is our area? Especially for this age of kids. They’re playing, and they put everything in their mouths,” Mendoza said. “So if we start something healthy here, at the center, they’re going to be more healthy for later on.”

That’s why Mendoza helped arrange for Department of Ecology project manager Jeff Newschwander to visit the Rainbow Kidz Yakima facility. When he arrived, Newschwander wanted to make sure Mendoza knew what he was in for.

“If you find out that you do actually have some of the old pesticide contamination here … ” he said. “At that point you do have an obligation, if you were ever going to sell the property, for example, that …”

“Uh huh.”

“... you need to let people know,” Newschwander said.

This is the disincentive that deters testing: State law says licensed day care operators who become aware of lead or arsenic in the soil must take action to prevent child exposure. Beyond that, disclosure of contaminated soil could complicate selling or borrowing on the property in the future without proper cleanup, which is also cost-prohibitive.

Wenatchee and Yakima, two hotspots for lead and arsenic, have a combined 340 child care centers.

Ecology has no money to help people like Mendoza pay for cleanup. That puts the agency in a difficult position -- do nothing, or require the property owner to undertake a potentially costly cleanup.

“I don’t want to create a problem for you without being able to help you solve it,” Newschwander told Mendoza.

What Newschwander didn’t know is Mendoza already had his soil tested.

A graduate student tested it about a year ago. The results prompted him to buy new dirt and grass to cover about 10 yards in his backyard. He said it cost him roughly $1,000.

He wanted to know if it worked.

With a long metal tube resembling a giant blood-draw needle, Newschwander extracted a column of dirt from Mendoza’s lawn. He ran it through an X-ray fluorescence machine, which can provide near-instantaneous readings. Contamination from the deepest sample, taken about 10 inches down, hovered near the state’s cleanup levels. Shallower soils were well below those levels.

“By you doing what you’ve done and having clean dirt on top, you’ve done exactly what we’d want you to do,” Newschwander told him.

Mendoza asked if Ecology could give a presentation to fellow day care owners. Many are afraid to spend money, he said, but they need to be educated.

“Part of your job is to take care of it,” Mendoza told him. “And part of my job is to have safe and a clean environment for my students.” 

Newschwander nodded.

“So that is the reason as a team we have to get together,” Mendoza said.

“I agree,” he said.

Reported by Tony Schick and Courtney Flatt. Written by Schick. Video produced by Flatt and edited by Lena Jackson. Soil testing by EarthFix was paid for through a grant from the Fund for Environmental Journalism.