Public unaware of toxic, cancerous chemical flowing in groundwater

by: Gary Horcher Updated:


AUBURN, Wash. - UPDATE: Department of Ecology says most samples show no contamination detected in Algona groundwater

Preliminary results from completion of an underground water-sampling project in parts of Algona show no contamination detected at most of the water-sampling locations. 

 The project is part of a continuing investigation into an area of contaminated groundwater that originates from past releases of solvent chemicals on property owned by The Boeing Company (Boeing) in Auburn.  The Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) directs the investigation, conducted and paid for by Boeing.

 The study in Algona is one step in determining the location and size of this underground contamination, which includes solvent chemicals, primarily trichloroethene (TCE) and vinyl chloride (VC).

Laboratory tests of samples from 34 of the 49 drilling locations in the study showed no detection of the solvent chemicals of main concern for health risk (TCE and VC).  Ecology and the Washington State Department of Health have begun a thorough review of the information.  Boeing is preparing to submit a scientific assessment of the study results to Ecology.

View the entire release from the Department of Ecology here.


Thousands of people in King County are just finding out about a potentially dangerous chemical flowing in the groundwater under their homes, workplaces and beyond.

 KIRO 7 Eyewitness News has been digging into a case of serious underground water contamination in Auburn and Algona that the government has been investigating for years. But most people who live and work above it -- and around it -- have no idea about the investigation going on right under their feet.

KIRO 7 reporter Gary Horcher found out where it came from and why it'll take decades to clean it up.

The growing cities of Auburn and neighboring Algona are home to more than 75,000 people, but very few have been told about a hazardous chemical flowing in groundwater a few feet under the surface.

Rich Hildreth, a former mayor of the nearby City of Pacific, showed Horcher where unmarked test wells were recently drilled and letters the Department of Health sent to local mayors about the groundwater two years ago.

The letters suggest state agencies ought to start talking about the problem, saying it:

“… is prudent to communicate now the current findings about the groundwater contamination (with the public, because) otherwise people will be concerned that they didn't know sooner.''

 “I’m interested to find out why this information hasn’t been brought forward,” said Hildreth.

The government quietly ordered the drilling of more than 200 groundwater test wells all over the Auburn area to tell the state departments of health and ecology just how serious the chemical contamination is.

So why didn't anyone tell the people who live here?

Test wells were installed a block from Matthew Roberts' front door.

“We saw them drilling several wells and we weren’t sure exactly what was going on,” said Roberts. “If there’s some type of hazardous chemical that’s in the groundwater, I’d like to know about it, what it is, and how I can protect my pets and myself from it.”

The hazardous chemical is trichloroethylene, or TCE.  Even exposure to its vapors can make you sick.

Twenty years ago, Boeing used TCE by the ton in Auburn, as a solvent to clean airplane parts.

Boeing stopped using TCE and demolished buildings where it was used.

But the groundwater was already contaminated, and at first, Boeing didn't know it.

They donated land around the site where the Auburn YMCA and Junior Achievement stand today.

The state Department of Health told KIRO tap water there is perfectly safe, because the city drinking supply comes from wells more than three miles from the area.

But underground, the Department of Ecology found TCE in shallow groundwater near the buildings, and it was on the move for more than mile outside Boeing's property. In time, they discovered two growing underground chemical plumes.  Under roads, buildings and even the parking lot of the Super Mall.

Boeing engineers agreed to show KIRO where dozens of test wells are virtually hidden from public view and are something that would probably never be noticed.

And the reason why is because the nondescript well caps have no identification at all. There’s nothing saying that they are there for the public’s health. It’s actually looking for the dangerous chemical TCE in the groundwater – how deep it goes, where it’s flowing and how far the dangerous plume extends.

 Why are they worried about the underground plume? The EPA says unless it's contained and cleaned up, TCE vapors could seep into buildings.

“Ecology recognizes now that the community needed more of this information,” said Larry Altose with the Department of Ecology.

Altose told KIRO his agency has been quietly tracking underground contamination for the last few years. He admits they hesitated telling the public. They still don't know just how big the plume is, and eventually, they'll have to test water and air where people live.

The next phase of well drilling or probing is likely to be in or near neighborhoods of Algona that are along or perhaps over part of the plume.

Jason Berry is the director of the Auburn YMCA, where researchers drilled holes in the floor and tested the air for TCE vapor. 

They detected no problems there or in Junior Achievement, but researchers told Berry more testing may be needed, and they've never been clear about what they're doing.

“Essentially, they do some drilling, take some water samples and then test it.  I don’t know beyond that. I don’t know exactly what that means when they test it,” said Berry.

But state officials tell KIRO that's about to change. Now, they're calling public meetings to inform people about the complex but silent investigation going on under their feet.

“When you have an underwater contamination situation, you need to know where it begins and ends because you don’t know where it leads.  So, we don’t know the end of the plume is,” said Altose.

“Well, nobody’s told me anything!  So, this is the first I’m hearing about the problem, and if that’s the case, you know, if there’s some sort of lethal chemical in the groundwater, I’d like to know more about what I need to do about it,” said Roberts.

Within the last week, the mayor of Algona was told test wells will be drilled around 160 homes, including his own.

He released a letter announcing contamination has even been found in surface water there.

 The mayor called for a public meeting next Tuesday in Algona so homeowners can ask questions of Boeing and state investigators.

 Boeing's made a commitment to clean up the contamination, a process which could take decades.