Editor's note:This is part one of two parts revisiting the North Ridge Estates cleanup. Part two will be printed in Tuesday's H&N.
The cost of cleaning and securing asbestos materials left over from a 125-acre World War II-era military base northeast of Klamath Falls is now costing millions.
It began as a military hospital to treat personnel suffering from tropical diseases after fighting in the Pacific Theater. It was later was converted to the original Oregon Institute of Technology campus.
The structures, like many of the era, were built largely out of asbestos, due to the fibrous materials’ inability to burn. It would be decades until it was learned how toxic the material was, and by then the original buildings had been demolished with tons of asbestos materials buried in the ground.
The property was redeveloped for housing, renamed North Ridge Estates, but soon residents began to notice a problem. During the winter freeze and spring thaw asbestos-contaminated materials from the original military base would emerge from the ground.
A lawsuit against the developers provided funds for many to relocate from the site, but for those who stayed it remains a dangerous mess.
Since 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been trying to determine how best to handle the tons of toxic material both on the surface and buried as deep as 15 feet.
After multiple attempts to clean the site, it was declared a Superfund by the state of Oregon — a one-time federal assistance request for what is considered to be one of the most contaminated area in the state.
“First the EPA came out with asbestos abatement crews, we walked shoulder-to-shoulder over the whole site picking up every piece of visible asbestos,” said Judy Smith, community involvement coordinator for the EPA. Smith has been working on the North Ridge Estates clean-up since 2003.
“When we came back the next year, it was like we’d never even been there, with the freeze and thaw cycle of the winter more asbestos had come to the surface.”
Realizing that there was no way to reduce risk to an acceptable level, in 2005 a temporary relocation was conducted for the summer. The lawsuit with the land developers followed the next year, which allowed most of the 80 residents on-site to relocate, while EPA collected titles to vacated properties in the hope that the site could be permanently cleaned up and lots re-sold.
Despite nearly a decade of clean-up efforts, the task to contain the asbestos was overwhelming, measured in the equivalent of football stadium-sized material to be removed. By 2011 it was clear more help was needed.
Asbestos floats to the surface
“We found that materials came up as much as 18 inches during the freeze and thaw cycle,” said Smith. “To remedy this, we removed a minimum of two feet of contaminated soil, and will go as far as four feet deep if we’re still seeing materials. Then we place a marker layer to indicate the bottom of the excavation, then clean fill is added. It’s become a huge soil-moving project.”
After five years of extensive planning and surveying, the heavy work began in 2016. Year one of a three-year project moved massive amounts of soil to two designated sites on the property where all asbestos-tainted materials will be buried and capped. Last month, year two of the project began, and will continue into October, or as long as weather permits.
Work consists of excavation and replacement of septic tanks and removal of decks on homes. Some remaining residents are being temporarily relocated for three months at a time while work is done in close proximity of their homes.
Nine homes were completely cleaned last year, with the hope of completing around 20 this year. In 2018 any remaining properties still contaminated will be cleaned. The project is estimated to cost around $35 million.
Due to asbestos contamination in roots systems, most of the trees that once adorned the property were uprooted over the winter.
Extensive care is taken by work crews to minimize dust while excavating, as asbestos fibers once airborne can lead to lung cancer and other respiratory diseases if inhaled.
Work crews wear protective gear, and a vast amount of water is sprayed on the grounds to ensure asbestos doesn’t get airborne. Decontamination areas are located on-site to completely clean trucks and equipment, assuring that no asbestos is accidentally relocated off-site.
While no asbestos-related illnesses have been reported by current or former residents, according to Smith, the potential of harm increases over time as materials deteriorate. The risk could increase if it isn’t cleaned up, with signs of asbestos-related illnesses sometimes taking 15-20 years to appear in the human body.
“They are trying to essentially complete entire properties, not have them in different stages,” said Smith. “We don’t want to leave any materials exposed, and with all of the precipitation over the winter, there was a concern that covers on the caps remain intact.”
Once EPA clean-up operations are completed, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is responsible for long-term monitoring. Caps for the two burial sites will be closely monitored to ensure contaminated materials are protected. Additionally, every five years, the EPA will conduct a review of site materials – a requirement for all Superfund-designated sites.
One of the houses on-site is scheduled for demolition due to excessive vandalism, but it is hoped that the remaining properties will eventually be re-sold.
“With Superfund sites they are usually cleaned up so that it fits within the same zoning as it was before,” said Smith. “There’s still value in the properties and the site can be cleaned up and made safe — it’s just a big job.”
To keep residents aware of work being conducted an email list and hotline was established. A construction season community meeting is planned for Thursday, May 4 at the Klamath County Library from 5-8 p.m., allowing time for people to ask questions and review plans for the season.
Some heavier truck traffic should be expected along roads leading to the North Ridge Estates property during the season.