The Toxins Beneath Us

The hidden catastrophe of groundwater contamination

An aerial photo of a large factory facility with many pipes and tanks. At the center is a turquoise green pool of water.

David Hanson. Aerial view of the ATI Wah Chang facility in Harrisburg, Oregon

As a geologist, I’ve witnessed a lot of spectacular and beautiful and strange things in underground spaces. In the below-world, I’ve felt the smooth welded walls of lava tubes, counted the species encased in fossil-rich ancient seafloors, mapped the drowned forests of tsunami inundation zones, and seen hard rocks turned to powdery gouge by active faults. Though these things inspire awe and wonder in me, they are not the things that most occupy my thoughts. The things that keep me up at night, that I feel an urgency to share with surface dwellers, are not geologic in origin, but human. They are the combined spills, plumes, and fouled earth that make up Oregon’s soil and groundwater contamination problem. 

This ongoing catastrophe is born of human hubris, error, inaction, and illness. Soil and groundwater contamination is the byproduct of familiar industries that make our modern lives possible: timber, energy production, metals and glass manufacturing, agriculture, dry cleaning, and transportation, as well as landfills, golf courses, and septic tanks. The activities that provide our housing, food, employment, and leisure leave behind herbicides and pesticides, radioactive ores, petrochemicals, and heavy metals, substances that have been collectively linked to a wide range of health problems, including asthma, cancers, birth defects and miscarriages, endocrine system disruptions, skin irritations, hepatitis, dysentery, and radiation poisoning. In Oregon, the most common contaminants are nitrates, pesticides, and volatile organic compounds.

There are people whose job it is to investigate this kind of contamination, usually as part of a due diligence historical use review for a property sale or redevelopment. The process starts with the review of old maps, aerial photographs, and government records before turning to sampling. Sometimes it’s enough to use shovels or hand trowels to collect surface soil, but often push-probe drills and pneumatic pumps are required to pull soil and water from tens of feet belowground. If intervention or dig-out is needed, heavy equipment, concrete cutters, track hoes, and dump trucks come into play. It’s a messy process, one that calls to mind words like “knee-deep,” “muck,” and “quagmire.” It creates piles and piles of contaminated mud and barrels and barrels of contaminated water, all of which, equipment included, has to be properly decontaminated or disposed of. The people who do this work, who sample and monitor and implement remediation systems, wear respirators and bunny suits. Years ago, I did these things in respirators and bunny suits. Eventually, for my own physical and mental health, I quit, unable to face on a daily basis the enormity of the problem and the meager progress being made. Now, in this era of consequence and action, I ask you to peer into the dank and putrid toxic underground with me and face it together.


Problems with water—its scarcity, who controls it, and the systems that hold it in place or move it around—show up in the news in Oregon nearly every day. But these stories about drought and salmon runs and aging dams are mostly about surface water, the reservoirs and streams and snowpack that together make up a mere 5 percent of the state’s freshwater resources. The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) estimates that close to 70 percent of Oregonians get some or all of their water from underground sources, and yet we rarely hear about threats to these resources: the Superfund sites that may never be restored, the industrial chemical spills that are largely considered a normal part of doing business, or the thousands of aging underground storage tanks leaking hazardous substances beneath our homes and workplaces and into our recreational and drinking waters. Because we don’t see groundwater, it is easy to ignore. But soil and groundwater contamination is inextricable from our aboveground environment. It shows up in our food systems and bodies and intersects with climate change, development and economic sustainability, social justice, and public health. 

In June 2022, Morrow County took the unprecedented step of declaring a state of emergency due to nitrate contamination in its groundwater. The decision came after nearly three decades of struggle to mitigate the impacts of nitrates in its private wells, contamination caused by fertilizer use on the region’s farms. Because agriculture is Morrow County’s primary industry, the problem cruelly pits economic survival against human health.

Nitrates, in the broad spectrum of contaminants, are comparatively benign and particularly well regulated. The same is true of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, a broad class of common chemicals used in dry cleaning, paints, and other semi-industrial processes. Because VOCs are so ubiquitous and have been regulated for so long, most users are aware of their carcinogenic effects and their potential for causing harm to the nervous system, liver, and kidneys. In the case of chemicals like these, guidelines exist for their proper storage and handling, and when a release does occur, it’s usually concentrated in a relatively small location, called a point source. In those instances, there’s a system in place for reporting and cleaning up the release. It’s a slow process, but one that is often effective over time.

Other chemicals, like herbicides and pesticides, are intentionally released across broad swaths of land, where they accumulate slowly, persisting for extended periods of time in soil and groundwater and making their way up the food chain, settling into the fatty tissues of animals at the top, including humans. Once there, they can damage DNA, resulting in cancers, or disrupt the endocrine system. Often they result in birth defects and neurological disorders.

Then there are the so-called forever chemicals. There are more than nine thousand per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, together known as PFAS, commonly found in consumer goods, and they never break down. Unlike nitrates or petrochemicals, large-scale, point-source releases of PFAS are rare, and are usually associated with industrial spills or fire suppression foams. But the ubiquity of these chemicals in consumer products has resulted in their diffuse release into soils and groundwater through household disposal and landfills. PFAS are not well regulated, and the EPA is just now establishing action levels to serve as guidelines for the identification of harmful concentrations and cleanup standards. Little is known about the prevalence of these substances in Oregon groundwater, though both the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and OHA have identified them in recent surveys of drinking water. 

Radioactive waste doesn’t last forever, but given how long the most common contaminants take to break down, it might as well. When most Oregonians think of radioactivity, we likely think about Hanford, the now-closed nuclear facility on the Washington side of the Columbia River that processed the majority of the plutonium used in the United States’ nuclear arsenal. Perhaps we have vague memories of when it was still in operation, or we remember skimming over articles about containment, or maybe something about leaking drums. But we probably don’t think of Wah Chang. 

Wah Chang Corporation was a metals manufacturing and extraction company that opened a plant in Millersburg, just outside of Albany, in 1957. The site was chosen because of its proximity to the Albany Research Center, a laboratory founded by the Bureau of Mines in 1943 that still operates today. The sprawling plant, now owned by ATI, a corporation based in Texas, specializes in the production of zirconium, hafnium, tantalum, and niobium, metals primarily used in nuclear industries. In the 1970s, Wah Chang won a contract with the Union Carbide Corporation to melt tens of thousands of pounds of uranium-enriched metals for the US government’s nuclear weapons program. The waste materials from these activities were largely deposited in unlined sludge ponds adjacent to the Willamette River. In the following decades, former workers, many of whom did not know they were being exposed to radioactivity, began to get sick with one of the more than twenty cancers associated with these materials. Eventually, state and federal officials took note, listing the plant as a Superfund site in 1983. Sampling and cleanup of radioactive materials and other wastes released into the environment in and around the site, including volatile organic compounds, hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and heavy metals, continues today and will likely continue long into the future.


Most contamination isn’t obvious, and because it’s located underground, it’s hard to characterize the true nature and extent of the problem. Each class of chemical contaminants in our groundwater and soil contributes its own unique set of symptoms, illnesses, and long-term conditions. Low levels of exposure build up over time, causing clusters of seemingly disparate symptoms. Contamination is largely imperceptible, and it travels, migrating with the underground flow of water from its source to any number of locations. And it’s hard to tell the difference between healthy, nourishing soils rich in microorganisms and essential nutrients and dirt that is heavy with unseen oils or that carries minute amounts of contaminants on the surface of each microscopic grain of clay.

In real time, the self-reporting of spills and releases and the discovery of obviously contaminated materials during excavation for new construction are perhaps the easiest ways of knowing the volume, dispersion, and makeup of contamination. Sometimes, the system works. A large-scale contamination plume at the confluence of the Marys and Willamette Rivers in Corvallis is an example. Between the 1970s and late 1990s, Evanite Fiber Corporation (now Hollingsworth & Vose) used trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent, in the production of materials for batteries. During that time, TCE and other chemicals were released into sludge ponds at the site. In one isolated spill in 1978, close to 1,400 gallons of TCE were released. When the contamination was identified as problematic years later, the government took action, with cooperation and funds from Evanite. After years of sampling, surveying, and preliminary cleanup conducted in tandem by the company, interested parties, and the DEQ, a Record of Decision specifying how the contamination should be addressed was drafted in 2015. It’s an ambitious undertaking, especially for a facility that’s still in operation. The plan, which is still in the early phases of implementation, calls for hydraulic containment—the construction of belowground barriers and drainage systems to prevent off-site migration—as well as pumping and aboveground treatment of groundwater, soil removal, the in-place treatment of contamination with microbes, and years of ongoing monitoring. 

Older contamination can be more difficult to address. Historical uses, disposals, and spills that took place decades before the formation of the EPA in 1970—and long before anyone knew about the potential harms of the chemicals in question—are common. Sometimes it takes over a century for a problem and the responsible parties to be identified. This is especially common with mining sites. While California’s gold rush is more widely remembered, Central and Southern Oregon were also hotbeds of mining, first for gold and then for lesser metals such as silver and nickel. That boom time is still celebrated in Cottage Grove, where the annual Bohemia Mining Days festival—named after an abandoned former mining town in the mountains to the southeast—draws thousands of revelers with parades, old-time music, antique mining equipment, and ore cart races. 

The true legacy of mining in the area is less festive. Mining extracts more than just the target ores, often surfacing rocks containing associated metals and minerals like arsenic and mercury. Those rocks, collectively referred to as tailings, were typically discarded in and around streambeds and lakes near mines. Over time, the metals leach from the rocks and make their way into surface water, then groundwater. Eventually the contamination reaches nearby communities. This is what happened in the hills above Cottage Grove, where the Black Butte Mine is now a Superfund site. It began operations in the late 1880s. Mercury contamination was discovered in Cottage Grove Lake downslope from the site in the 1970s. The lake became the first body of water in Oregon to have a fish advisory issued for mercury contamination, but cleanup of the tailings and other contaminated materials did not begin until 2007.

Progress on cleanups at sites like Black Butte and Evanite can seem to operate on geologic time thanks to the complexity of identifying contamination and its sources, the contentious and litigious nature of liability, and the expense of designing and implementing cleanups. The laws governing responsibility are a tangled web of legislation that dates back to the Love Canal cancer cluster of the 1970s. Individual companies and landowners are often responsible, but investigations and determinations of responsibility can drag out for years with little to no action. 

Eventually, though, sites do get cleaned up. Several agencies, including the EPA, DEQ, and OHA, provide legal frameworks and oversight, setting exposure limits, identifying toxic sites, and overseeing cleanups. And the science is getting better. Great strides are being made in technology and techniques to address contamination that go far beyond digging out soil and removing it to lined landfills or pump-and-treat systems that rely on dilution and aeration. Promising technologies include bacterial and fungal remediation and even the use of hemp to remove heavy metals from soils. 

Bold action is also being taken by individual citizens, scientists, and politicians, who are proving that incremental change is possible and citizen oversight and science can play an important role in fixing this multifaceted problem. For instance, Rachael Cleveland, an undergraduate from the University of Oregon who was interested in studying human impacts and the environment, was responsible for bringing public awareness to the possible health hazards of the Black Butte Mine site. Her study, which began in 2017, focused on tracing the downstream migration of mercury from the mine toward Cottage Grove. Her efforts were supported by staff from the DEQ and EPA who were eager to compare her results to their own data as they began the process of remediation. Ultimately, her project was reported in the local news, serving as a potent form of public awareness and a good reminder that citizen science and the work of early-career researchers can be valid and valuable—that, as Cleveland put it, “even small science can cast light on a big problem.”

Despite these promising developments, the scope of what we can do is limited by what has already been done, by our decisions as consumers and producers and manufacturers. It’s limited by our own ability to admit to what is right beneath our feet. Most contamination never really dies. It just gets moved, or contained, or diluted. Often remediation measures are recommended to continue in perpetuity. And eventually this problem will affect all of us.

There are steps we can all take to help address groundwater contamination. You can have your own soil and well water tested; choose nontoxic cleansers, beauty and home products, and gardening applications; and follow recommended practices for cleanup and disposal of chemicals at home and at work. At the state and community level, you can participate in the development of your community’s wellhead protection program, join or support public interest and oversight groups like Beyond Toxics and Beyond Pesticides, and reach out to your elected officials to ask what is being done to address contamination in their districts.

Rachael Cleveland, who turned a simple mercury investigation into a career focused on citizen science, reminds us that progress can and is being made—that there is hope. “From what I understand, everything that’s being done [at Black Butte] is appropriate, and the mercury doesn’t exceed the acceptable DEQ and EPA levels,” she says. “In terms of safety, I’d feel comfortable swimming in the reservoir. Whenever you deal with the environment there’s always depression and frustration, but it’s good to focus on the positive things too, because they do exist.”

It’s important to remember that we are not passive victims of pollution, but conspirators in its creation. There is no evil “other” to blame. Contamination is caused by the manufacturing and procurement and disposal of the things we need and want and love and discard, and we’ve ignored and buried the results of our own ignorance and experimentation for far too long. The consequences of our way of life manifest in the environment and in our own bodies. They abide and endure.

Want to explore this story further? 

View our discussion guide to find questions and prompts as well as links to related articles, books, websites, and more.


Economics, Environment, Land, Resources


2 comments have been posted.

I am so proud of the work you are doing. I know it is overwhelming and hard to reconcile the guilt of being a user of the products of destruction we as a society expect. We’re you in bio when the book Our Stolen Future came out? If you’re ever in Astoria you have a place to stay❣️ Love Nancy

Nancy Lapotin | January 2023 | Astoria Oregon

Go Ruby! Always look forward to what you write, both personal and scientific.

Fischer Patricia | January 2023 |

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From the Director: Grounding

Editor's Note: Underground

Healing Gila

“My Heart Belongs Where the Trees Are”

The Toxins Beneath Us

“We Are the Original Conservationists”

Purple Prairie

Long Live the Kings

Stretching Toward the Sun


People, Places, Things: Xmaash Tamaycht

Discussion Questions and Further Reading: Underground