Decades ago thousands of barrels of highly toxic chemicals were dumped in the Oregon desert, thinking few would notice. After several years the barrels were crushed and buried with no safety liner placed in the ground, allowing everything to mix and potentially spread underground.
The area known as Alkali Lake is approximately 30 miles east of Christmas Valley, located on secure Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) owned lands. The site is monitored, and though a plume of chemicals extending from the site underground has been tracked to at least 2,000 feet beyond the immediate dump site, DEQ claims the chemicals, many of which comprised the ingredients of the compound used during the Vietnam War to clear vegetation known as Agent Orange, are not entering the aquifers in the region used for well water and irrigation.
On Monday, Oct. 8, DEQ held an annual meeting for Christmas Valley residents to explain ongoing monitoring of the site, and led a tour of the site on Tuesday. For many, including Lake County Commissioner James Williams, the experience left more questions than answers.
“Don’t apply logic to why the barrels were crushed without a liner, the DEQ acknowledges that it was a bad idea,” said Williams. “There was a very lengthy court case, I’m not sure if the chemical company is free of litigation to this day. There was a lot of carelessness along the way, burying thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals in the ground with no liner was foolish. I have a lot of questions.”
The site became a dumping ground for approximately 25,000 barrels of toxic chemicals in 1967 for Rhodia Inc. of Portland, shortly after the production of Agent Orange was banned. The 55-gallon drums contained dioxin, 2, 4-D, MCPA, chlorinated phenols and other chemicals used in the production of Agent Orange – a known cancer-causing carcinogen.
Citizens objected to the site, and in 1971 the site was effectively shutdown, but state officials couldn’t force the chemical company to clean up the mess. In 1976, after the state condemned the site and took control of the 10-acre disposal area, the barrels were haphazardly crushed and buried in 12 unlined trenches.
By 1999 DEQ records indicate that a plume of contamination in the groundwater had spread horizontally underground. DEQ claims to have upwards of 50 monitoring wells, the deepest of which only goes 40 feet deep, though Lake County Water Master records only indicate four wells dug at the site. An additional 420 acres have been purchased, with the site containing two secured fence areas to prevent people or wildlife from accessing the area.
The closest residents live only a mile from the site, with an 80-foot well that has static water at 22 feet. According to Williams, that well has never been tested.
According to DEQ records the company responsible for the chemicals is now owned by Bayer CropScience, which in 2009 reached a resolution with DEQ that did not include cleanup or future testing. DEQ has not announced plans to cleanup the site.
Williams indicated that despite the toxicity of the site, there are no funds available for cleanup, and even if there were the task to do so could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
At the DEQ hearing Williams pressed the DEQ to add more warning signs. He also discovered that additional chemicals were reportedly dumped two miles east of the site, which would place it in relative proximity to the base of Abert Rim along Hwy 395. A Canadian company, present at the hearing, is also interested in third-party testing, believing they may have a compound that can neutralize at least some of the chemicals present. Williams is also pushing for testing to be conducted quarterly rather than yearly.
The DEQ believes that the chances of these chemicals spreading to the Christmas Valley water supply is next to non-existent, but Williams remains skeptical as the potential of earthquakes could create fissures that expose aquifers that the chemicals may not currently reach. While the site may have been chosen back in the 1960s because of the low population density, northern Lake County’s high agricultural production provides hay to not only the majority of dairies in Oregon, but is shipped to international markets as well. Should water become contaminated, the repercussions would extend far beyond Lake County’s ag industry.
“I don’t think it’s good enough to just say, ‘we are monitoring the situation,’” added Williams. “I don’t think any local no matter how much we think we alleviated their concerns on Monday left that meeting happy when all they hear is that we are going to continue status quo. They want solutions.”
The Alkali Lake site is one of two local toxic disposal sites, along with a uranium dump outside Lakeview. According to Williams, rules were established at the state level to clean up toxic sites, but not on DEQ-owned lands – specifically because of Alkali Lake.