For more than 40 years, the Port of Tacoma has actively worked to transform old, industrial sites into usable properties to attract new businesses and jobs to the South Sound region. While the process called environmental remediation can be complicated, slow, and expensive, it’s a body of work that ports are uniquely suited to undertake.

What is environmental remediation?

In the simplest terms, environmental remediation is cleaning up legacy contamination resulting from old industrial processes, coupled with poor housekeeping, and preparing the site for its next use. The site is then redeveloped—most often as a new industrial or terminal facility—and includes new, protective measures that did not previously exist.

To date, we have spent more than $200 million on remediating nearly 1,100 acres, with plans to clean up several hundred more acres.

The contamination might be toxic soil, groundwater, or other materials left behind by the former property owner or tenant. The sites are largely unusable because they don’t meet today’s stringent environmental regulations, which were first enacted in the 1970s.

When the Port purchases a property, we become one of the parties responsible for removing and properly disposing of the pollutants. And the work doesn’t end there. The cleaned-up sites must be regularly monitored and maintained to ensure they remain safe for use.

The before (1968) and after (2019) images of the former Kaiser smelter site, which the Port of Tacoma purchased in 2003 from Houston-based Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corporation. The property was contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which result from burning fuels, and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), formerly used in transformers and electric engines. During the past decade, the Port removed thousands of tons of waste from the site, demolished buildings and cleaned up significant portions of the property. The Port bought the property with the express intent to demolish the facility, finish cleaning up the site and place it back into productive use.

Why does the port, and not private industry, complete the remediation work?

aerial photo of the port of tacoma

Two main reasons: location and cost.

The Port owns about half of the 5,000 acres that make up the Tacoma Tideflats. Our proximity to this heavy industrial center means we’re in the right place to address legacy contamination left by others. Remediation work is expensive. To date, we have spent more than $200 million on remediating nearly 1,100 acres, with plans to clean up several hundred more acres.

For private developers, redevelopment opportunities don’t usually pencil out when the costs of remediation are factored in. But unlike private developers, public organizations like ports can offset the high costs by leveraging state and federal funding and grants, like the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Remedial Action Grants.

These grants are funded by the state Hazardous Substances Tax, which is paid by companies responsible for importing toxic chemicals into the state. In addition, we actively pursue cost recovery from the original polluter throughout the cleanup process. The Port collects a small property tax, and those dollars can also be used to leverage these expensive cleanups. Through grants and cost recovery efforts, the Port is able to recover about 45 cents for every dollar spent on remediation.

Remedial Action Grants and Hazardous Substances Tax are created by the Model Toxics Control Act or MTCA.

What kinds of contaminants are removed?

The types of contaminants that need to be removed vary depending on the site’s history, but all are harmful to people and animals. Common contaminants encountered at cleanup sites led by the Port include:

Crews removing an old underground fuel storage tank for disposal at the Port's Earley Business Center. The site was then cleaned up and capped for future use. The cleaned-up sites must be regularly monitored and maintained to ensure they remain safe for use.

Why is remediation work important?

photo of a forklift moving debris

A forklift removes materials during the demolition of the Kaiser site.

In addition to creating a healthier environment, remediation efforts help the Port fulfill our mission to bring economic investment and jobs to the region.

As cleaned-up properties are put back into productive use, a Department of Ecology study in 2010 found that every dollar spent on remediation results in:

  • $7 in long-term payrolls
  • $32 in business revenue
  • $6 in tax revenue

The new Taylor Way Auto Facility is a good example of this in action: The Port purchased the former Kaiser Aluminum Smelter in 2003.

We spent $11.3 million over 18 years to prepare the site for redevelopment. Today the new auto processing facility has created dozens of family-wage jobs and also manages a robust stormwater treatment system.