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Construction to expand the federal immigration lockup on the Tacoma Tideflats might have violated restrictions put into place after an environmental cleanup at the site, state officials said Thursday.
The Geo Group, a Florida-based contractor that runs the Northwest Detention Center, dug through clean soil into potentially contaminated groundwater in apparent violation of a restrictive covenant imposed in 2003, according to the state Department of Ecology.
Risk to the public is believed to be minimal. State inspectors planned to visit the site today.
"We've asked the Geo Group to prepare an application to our voluntary cleanup program and give it to us by Monday," said Lisa Pearson, an engineer with the state's Toxics Cleanup Program.
A local civil liberties watchdog group called the Bill of Rights Defense Committee-Tacoma first alerted state officials to potential problems, prompting a review.
A request for comment made through the Geo Group's corporate headquarters received no reply Thursday. Earlier in the week, Joan Mell, an attorney who represents the company locally, said there was no intent to disregard any environmental regulations.
"They're very concerned about being a good neighbor," she said.
Pearson, who's been in communication with local Geo Group representatives, said there was apparently "some kind of mix-up" and that the company was unaware the property was under a restrictive covenant stemming from the previous cleanup of the site, known as the Tacoma Tar Pits.
Activists, who have fought against the facility on many fronts, expressed environmental concerns early on.
"No matter what happens, we in Tacoma have a moral responsibility to 500-plus detainees soon to be living above one of our most toxic areas," Tim Smith, a spokesman for the Bill of Rights group, wrote in a News Tribune editorial in 2004, before the detention center opened.
The facility has about 1,000 beds. The expansion would bring that number up to 1,500.
"This just confirms what we've been saying about this place," Smith said Thursday.
The apparent violation doesn't require activity at the site to be halted, Pearson said. Geo Group has said tests indicate the water in question is no longer dangerously contaminated, but the state hasn't reviewed those results, she said.
Bill of Rights Defense Committee members expressed concern that contaminated water might be flowing from the site into local waterways, but there's no evidence of that happening, Pearson said.
State and federal officials are working with the company to monitor water quality, figure out the extent of any problem and determine what actions might be necessary, said Tamara Langton, a project manager with the federal Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle.
The restrictive covenant requires a 30-day public comment period before the state approves any work that would violate restrictions, such as digging in certain areas. Since some of that work has already started, Pearson said she hopes to initiate a public comment period soon.