Major Walla Walla gas station leak fouling the ground beneath historic Marcus Whitman Hotel, federal post office
In the swish burg of Walla Walla known for agriculture, top-rate wine and food and tourism, a mess is unfurling downtown – underground.
It was an eerie scene recently in the Georgian Room and lobby of the Marcus Whitman Hotel. The stately building from 1928 stands unusually deserted.
The music plays but no one is there to enjoy the good times.
The hotel was evacuated several days ago, and it’s unclear when it will reopen.
David Gavaldon, interim general manager of the Marcus Whitman Hotel, grimly surveys the massive and dark empty room with low leather couches and chairs.
“Our lobby since it has been remodeled has been very vibrant,” Gavaldon said. “A lot of guests seem to enjoy it, and they have their meetings here. So obviously, it’s disappointing to see the lobby like this, but I know that once we are reopened I know it will be back to being alive and really vibrant so we’re looking forward to those times.”
Along 2nd Avenue, buildings have been evacuated including the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel. Details are changing fast but a gasoline spill is being aired out of the hotel basement and the next door Post Office. Potentially explosive concentrations of chemicals have been found in nearby sumps which are being pumped and aired out. The Walla Walla Fire Department is checking nearby buildings and hasn’t found any explosive concentrations. Investigators are drilling core samples and constructing sample wells to find the extent of the plume. Investigators hope the sample wells will show them the direction the groundwater is flowing, and the direction the contamination is coming from.
First, the spill was found beneath the Marcus Whitman Hotel in the basement’s sump pump. Then, in the Post Office. Now, it’s stewing underneath a nearby unoccupied commercial building.
Washington State Department of Ecology experts found the Chevron station across the street from the Marcus Whitman Hotel may not be to blame. Their tanks were tested to be tight. There is another gas station nearby, a Circle K, that is also being tested.
Experts say the gas could easily run along underground pipelines or move with the shallow groundwater, since gasoline mostly floats. So, it’s unclear how far away it could be flowing from. However, laboratories can do forensic fingerprinting of the fuel.
“We’re pulling groundwater, impacted groundwater from a sump and a pump below the hotel,” said Sam Hunn, the Eastern Washington Response Supervisor with the Department of Ecology. “We are analyzing that material to see the amount of gasoline that’s in that water. We are looking at the soil in the basement as well to have that tested for gasoline content. And that’s kind of our starting point right now.”
Defining the plume
Hunn said it’s hard to tell how long this shutdown could stretch or how wide it could go. So far, Mill Creek, which is largely channelized across town in a concrete flume, is safe, Hunn said.
“We’ve worked with the contractor on scene to put the boom into storm drains to contain any flow of potentially contaminated stormwater towards the river,” Hunn said. “We haven’t seen any evidence of that movement yet and we have been putting eyes on the river. We haven’t seen any sheen, no odors at the river, or anything to indicate that the river’s been impacted.”
There is also a boom that’s been put into Mill Creek to look for any further problems.
Additionally, according to Visit Walla Walla, the city has just under 1,000 total rooms for visitors. So, taking out more than 100 upper-end rooms downtown at the Marc is a big deal. Restaurateurs and wine country are all mid-crush, or wine grape harvest, which drives a lot of regional and national tourism in the area. The first week of November is the Fall Release Weekend, where nearby wineries pour recently crushed wine. The event draws many – nearly all the hotels are already booked.
Once the leak can be found, stopped and the emergency is over, more hard work likely awaits.
The problem with the spilled gasoline is that it can move so easily in the environment and contaminate so much water, cleanup experts say. Benzene, a chemical found in gasoline, is a known human carcinogen and has very low limits for federal standards in drinking water. So, cleanup underground amid a complex downtown could get very expensive.
“Well, plumes spread,” said Steve Airhart who leads Freestone Environmental Services in Richland. Usually, his firm works on Hanford but he has done some gasoline spills in the past across the Northwest. “So it could be that, or it could just be that attention is being brought to it, and people are focusing on going down to their basements and monitoring the air down there. One thing about gasoline contamination is that it’s easy to detect with your nose. So, it’s unlikely that it’s been around for a long time, otherwise people would have noticed it in the buildings.”
Still, City of Walla Walla officials told the Department of Ecology, the city’s drinking water pipes in the area of 2nd Avenue are newer and shouldn’t be infiltrated with gas.
Airhart said the cleanup operation could likely require long-term monitoring.
Perhaps the largest impact so far is for the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel. The 133-room hotel was evacuated at about 5 p.m. on Thursday, September 14th. Since then, no guests have been let in. Major conferences have been rerouted to other hotels or canceled. A coffee shop and three wine tasting rooms, all in the historic hotel, had to be shut down. Most hotel workers have been sent home and told to apply for unemployment but some are able to work remotely.
Several other permanent residents, with upper-floor apartments, have also had to be evacuated.
Michael Locati has a 700 square-foot apartment on the 11th floor. He said he’s staying at another hotel during the closure but he wishes he could get home.
“The hotel, they’re amazing, they’re my family,” Locati said. “I’ve lived there 11 years. And I know them all. They take care of me, I take care of them. I see something out of place, I let them know what’s going on.”
When told to evacuate, he grabbed three changes of clothes, his medications and his tennis shoes and pretty much just got out. He has been spending a lot of time in his farm’s workshop and in coffee shops, he said.
“It’s like what I do?” Locati said. “You can’t go home.”
9/21/23: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of David Gavaldon's name and adjust his title.