ASHLAND — The Parks and Recreation Department is working to clean up its operations following an inspection that revealed a vehicle washing station was emptying soap, oil and gas residue into the ground.

ASHLAND — The Parks and Recreation Department is working to clean up its operations following an inspection that revealed a vehicle washing station was emptying soap, oil and gas residue into the ground.

The department was inspected by Ashland's Green Team in October 2008 after the Parks and Recreation Commission set a goal the year before to explore practices that could make the department more green.

The Green Team visits businesses and organizations that want inspections and advice on going green and creates a report praising accomplishments and identifying problem areas. The team that inspected the parks department included a Department of Environmental Quality representative, city energy and water-use experts and an employee of the Ashland Sanitary and Recycling company.

The team found several problems, including a concrete pad used by the department for the past 20 or 25 years to wash vehicles. The pad had a drain that emptied the wash water into the ground, parks Superintendent Steve Gies said.

Although the washing area was legal when it was built, it was not legal at the time of the inspection, said parks Director Don Robertson.

The parks department had the site tested by Western States Environmental and found the area had diesel and oil contaminants. Western States removed the contaminated material. The area has been paved over and is no longer in use as a wash site, Robertson said.

Contamination levels in the soil at the site were below DEQ danger thresholds, he said.

Parks employees now take vehicles to a legal city of Ashland wash area, he said.

"We've been trying to make things right," Robertson said.

It took more than a year for the parks department to understand DEQ regulations about how to deal with the wash area and to have the site cleaned, he said.

Green Team member Lisa Freeman, DEQ natural resource specialist, wrote a scathing letter to the parks department on Dec. 9, 2009, that said, "In my opinion, parks management has a disregard for the environmental regulations as neither important nor necessary."

She said the parks department generates industrial wastewater, solid wastes, hazardous wastes and pesticide wastes, but doesn't have a good understanding of the multitude of regulations that apply to wastes.

Freeman wrote that the parks department has not instituted best management practices.

"I would think that Ashland, a forward-thinking community with beautiful parks and creeks, would have dedicated staff that care about how their actions impact others and the environment," Freeman said in the letter.

Robertson said he disagrees with the personal opinion Freeman expressed and said there may have been misunderstandings among the Green Team about parks department practices.

Freeman wrote in her part of the Green Team report that she believed that pesticide containers were being rinsed out and that leftover pesticides and rinse water were being "indiscriminately tossed in an area close to the shop on the ground instead of being reused in the sprayers during the next application."

Robertson said pesticides and rinse water are never dumped on the ground. Instead, parks employees rinse pesticide applicator containers three times and spray the rinse water on the area they are treating, such as poison oak patches.

Since the inspection, the parks department has begun to puncture empty pesticide containers so they can never be used again, in compliance with DEQ regulations, Robertson said.

The department also is working to make sure containers are labeled, whether they contain pesticides or nonharmful substances. The Green Team found some unlabeled containers, he said.

Robertson said he is concerned that the harsh tone of Freeman's letter to the parks department might dissuade other businesses and organizations from participating in the Green Team program.

Freeman was out of the office for several days and unavailable for comment.

Parks commissioners Rich Rosenthal and Mike Gardiner said parks managers have "acted prudently and effectively in reviewing, addressing and, if necessary, correcting environmental waste-handling issues at all department-managed facilities."

Other steps taken by the parks department since the inspection include replacing thinners with less toxic substitutes such as mineral spirits, taking 20 gallons of solvent stored in a drum to a DEQ waste-collection site, buying recycled paper, replacing a self-composting toilet at the upper Lithia Park swimming hole with a regular restroom, fixing duct leaks and reviewing fuel-use policies with the city of Ashland's vehicle fleet manager, officials said.