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Superfund subdivision nearly ready for residents

KLAMATH FALLS — Preparations are underway for a busy summer ahead to complete work at the federal Superfund site of North Ridge Estates.

It's the former home of a World War II-era military base northeast of Klamath Falls contaminated by remains of poorly demolished building materials tainted with asbestos.

This year marks the third and final year of work to clean-up and store asbestos materials on-site while restoring homes and landscapes on the property. Declared a federal Superfund site, identified by the State of Oregon as its most hazardous site available to federal aid, the project is expected to top $35 million in federal cost by its projected completion later this year.

More than 150,000 cubic yards of dirt has already been moved in the project to retrieve demolished materials from the original World War II-era military hospital that was built on site — then converted into the original Oregon Institute of Technology campus — before being demolished to make room for residential housing in a subdivision named North Ridge Estates.

The demolition process was poorly handled by the land developer in the 1970s, resulting in toxic asbestos materials being buried beneath the soil on the 125-acre site, some of which began bubbling up to the surface in recent years sparking the cleanup.

Initial cleanup efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the early 2000s proved ineffective, and by 2006 many residents had been offered permanent relocation.

Once a lush forested area, the lands have been stripped of most of its large trees to allow for asbestos excavation and contaminated root removal, leaving a site that for the past two years of extensive work has resembled the aftermath of a bomb explosion.

A large repository of asbestos materials has been built in the center of the subdivision, to be sealed and monitored for possible erosion and exposure.

On Tuesday, Klamath County Commissioners declared the county's property management department to be in charge of monitoring the site, in addition to Department of Environmental Quality and EPA inspections.

During the three-year cleanup, many of the permanent residents have been temporarily relocated while soils surrounding homes are cleaned and contaminated items like septic tanks are replaced.

Much of the excavation process and individual home cleanup is now complete, with focus for the third year of the project aimed more at landscaping, securing the asbestos repository, planting of trees, reconstruction of roads and installing new sidewalks and driveways.

A small veterans' park currently at the back entrance to North Ridge Estates will also be moved to the main entrance.

While a once highly toxic site may cause some concerns for potential residents of the vacant homes on-site, EPA studies have shown that property values actually increase once a Superfund site is finished, as the site is certified clean and will have continued monitoring to assure it remains environmentally safe.

"Tree removal for season three properties was completed recently, and minor prep work is in progress for pre-excavation surveys, model prep and deck demolition," said Suzanna Skadowski, public affairs specialist for the EPA overseeing the North Ridge Superfund project.

"Mobilization of equipment and prep work will begin in early March with detail excavation around homes by mid-March. A mass excavation will begin in April and continue through July."

By the fall parcel backfill is expected to be completed, including repository covers and paving of roads, according to Skadowski. Even after the major work is completed the site will continue to be closely monitored to assure environmental and public safety.

While state and federal agencies have led the cleanup, the multi-year project has served as a boon to the local economy. Of the 78 workers present on site last year, 80 percent of labor was completed by local contractors. Northwind, one of the primary contractors on site, had 54 employees present, 46 of which were local.