GORST — During the fall's heavy rains, this deep ravine roars with dozens of waterfalls. The white water tumbles into pools where spawning salmon swim, and where their springtime descendants hatch and begin their trek out to sea.
It's a stretch of Gorst Creek that would be quite beautiful if the waterfalls weren't actually pouring from mounds of trash, and if the salmon weren't swimming alongside rusty car parts, paint cans, batteries and shredded heaps of plastic sheeting.
"This hillside — it's all landfill right in the middle of the creek," said Grant Holdcroft, a Kitsap Public Health District environmental health specialist. "And it keeps sloughing off, bringing garbage down — just cascades of it."
After decades of use as a Navy dump and a few more decades of indecision over who should deal with it, the ravine is finally being cleaned up.
This week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began driving in the heavy equipment that will remove about 8,000 truckloads of waste and debris from the 6-acre site just off Highway 3, between Gorst and Belfair. Known by many names — the Ames Auto Wrecking Landfill, the Bremerton Auto Wrecking Landfill, the Gorst Creek dump — the site will take a year and almost $30 million to clean up. The Navy recently agreed to pay for the project after years of legal wrangling with the EPA.
"Oh boy, the legal stuff was easy compared to finalizing the financial stuff," said Jeffry Rodin, the EPA's on-site cleanup coordinator. "We issued an enforcement order years ago, but enforcement isn't easy between federal agencies."
The Navy is deferring comment about the landfill to the EPA. Legal documents filed by the EPA indicates that the Navy acknowledged it disposed of waste at the landfill but disputed the EPA's claim that the trash is contaminating the creek.
In 1964, the landfill's first operator — Ames Auto Wrecking — installed a 24-inch-wide culvert in the creek floor and began covering it with garbage, including material from the Navy.
In the late '60s, the Navy contracted with Ames, which no longer exists, to dispose of 125,000 cubic yards of waste from Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. The EPA contends that the landfill violated a number of county and city codes during the time it was accepting trash from the Navy. Garbage from local residents started flowing in around 1970.
"Back then, as long as it wasn't exploding, they'd take it," Holdcroft.
It's unclear what exactly went into the dump, but there are large amounts of scrap metal, sawdust, lumber, tires and plastic sheeting. A great deal of material from demolished buildings — probably naval housing — has been tumbling out of the heap.
Oils, tars and chemicals have seeped from the site for years. Soil and water tests at and near the site have shown elevated levels of cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were banned in the '70s, as well as mercury, lead and other heavy metals — all of which is harmful to humans and wildlife.
By 1989, when the dump was closed, garbage covered about 800 feet of the creek. Dirt poured on top of the trash filled the ravine to its brim. Trees and brush grew, forming a natural-looking toupee atop a 45-foot-high mound of dirt and garbage. The weight of it all crushed the culvert, blocking fish passage.
During heavy rains, the dump acts as a dam. The lake that forms behind it is deep enough to submerge a three-story house. Eventually, the lake spills over, causing garbage-laden waterfalls and landslides on the downstream side.
"Sometimes you see fish spawning right in the garbage," said state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Gina Piazza. "It's a disgusting site."
The flow of trash regularly clogs a large culvert under Highway 3. A well-worn excavator path to the culvert hints at how regularly the state Department of Transportation must clean out the clog. Allowing the water to build could blow out the highway.
From the highway culvert, the trash flows through a section of Gorst Creek that supplied drinking water to the city of Bremerton until the 1980s.
"The garbage washes down and gets on the city property, and that has to be cleaned up," said Kathleen Cahall, Bremerton's water resources specialist. "And we've seen more of it the past dozen years."
The Gorst Creek trash flow runs near but does not taint the Union River watershed where the city currently draws its water, Cahall stressed.
The creek eventually flows through Gorst and into Sinclair Inlet. It's unknown how much trash and other contaminants flow into marine waters.
The cleanup will do wonders for salmon, Piazza said. She estimates it will reopen more than 150,000 square feet of fish habitat upstream from Highway 3 and boost the creek's spawning grounds by 12,170 square feet.
The EPA plans to recycle some of the concrete and scrap metal, but much of the estimated 150,000 cubic yards of waste and debris will go to a landfill, probably in southwest Washington.
Once the trash is out, the EPA will begin a large-scale habitat restoration project.
Holdcroft has been working to get the site cleaned up for 16 years. He joked he can retire now.
"It's been a huge thorn in my side. It's been a huge thorn in the side of the health district and the people of Kitsap County, he said. "To see this progress is really important. It's a huge plus for the health of the people in this county."