Who are the scientists in your neighborhood?

Aspect outreach connects younger residents with cleanup and redevelopment work at Mt. Baker Housing Association

On a recent cloudy afternoon, about 15 kids gathered on a corner in Seattle’s Mount Baker neighborhood to peer down a hole. The hole isn’t just any hole, it’s a groundwater monitoring well—one of 35 that Aspect is using to measure groundwater contamination levels in the area. The kids, ranging from second grade through high school, are residents of six nearby apartment buildings managed by the Mt. Baker Housing Association (MBHA). This field trip was led by Aspect’s Principal Geologist Dave Cook and Senior Geologist Jessica Smith, who have been sharing their environmental work on an innovative MBHA redevelopment project with some of the neighborhood’s younger residents through an ongoing series of visits that helps kids understand the science that will help shape the future of their neighborhood.

Located two blocks from the Mount Baker light rail station, the cleanup site has sat unused for years due to solvent-contamination from a dry cleaner and gasoline-contamination from a former gas station. Aspect is supporting a first-of-its-kind partnership between the MBHA, the City of Seattle, and the Washington State Department of Ecology that will use state funds to help cover some of the costs for environmental evaluation and cleanup. With significant help from an Ecology Public Partnership Grant, MBHA plans to redevelop the five parcels of land with two new residential buildings to meet the City’s critical need for more affordable housing.

Stepping out of the Typical Cleanup Process to Invite Community into the Project

Outreach and collaboration with the area’s residents, businesses, and other stakeholders is a key part of the project. Dave and Jessica’s work puts community, education, and science into action by speaking directly to a segment of the population not usually directly engaged in these types of projects. The kids get to meet the scientists and engineers working in their neighborhood and gets to find out what’s happening, and what’s going to happen, in their own backyard.

Dave and Jessica collaborated with MBHA’s Resident Services Coordinator Sameth Mell and intern Cristina Pinho to engage with the younger members of the Mount Baker community. “After 26 years of quietly cleaning up and recycling land for better uses, I thought it was time to break out of the standard consulting role and focus on the community in a more direct way,” Dave said. “I’ve always enjoyed educating people about what we do. The science is really cool, it’s practical, very visual, and I figured kids would be totally into geology and engineering. What kid doesn’t like playing with dirt, sampling water and learning about mysteries below ground?”

An Outdoor Classroom to See the Underground Up Close

On this recent visit, Dave and Jessica met the kids inside over pizza for introductions before heading out to the corner in front of the building, where Staff Geologist Na Hyung Choi was already busy gathering samples at one of the groundwater monitoring wells. She filled sample containers with groundwater located about 15 feet below the ground surface and answered questions while Jessica and Dave explained more about her work.

Jessica said, “For me, the best part of being involved in the community outreach is being able to introduce kids to the practical aspects of science and engineering to get them excited about STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math]. As we were watching Na Hyung obtain the groundwater samples, one of the fourth-grade girls asked me if she could be a Geologist or an Engineer when she grows up, to which I enthusiastically replied, ‘Of course!’ Facilitating that curiosity and excitement in these kids is what this is all about.”

Back inside, Dave and Jessica presented a video of how the well they’d just been looking at was created, showing how the hole was drilled and the soil that was unearthed from the drill. Jessica also gave a tangible explanation of just what groundwater is. Marbles in a glass represented the dirt, with a little water poured in to help them visualize how groundwater lives between the soil grains.  A bright green straw inserted into the glass stood in for the groundwater monitoring well that was installed into the soil to suck out the water.

Ongoing Outreach as Work Heads Toward 150 Units of New Housing

This visit was the second one Dave and Jessica have made since beginning their field work in mid-November. They plan to return often as the project continues, to share results from the samples Na Hyung was taking and what that data tells them about how the contaminants are behaving underground. From these data, Dave, Jessica and Ecology will develop the best plan to clean up the contaminated soil and groundwater so that construction can begin.

Cleanup and redevelopment on the MBHA project is slated to begin in 2019. Once complete, there will be an estimated 150 units of new affordable housing on the parcels. The kids Dave and Jessica have been checking in with will be able to tell their new neighbors, “Hey, I know what used to be underneath your building!” 

Aspect Paves the Way for a First-of-its-Kind Affordable Housing Project

Five pieces of land in southeast Seattle’s Mount Baker neighborhood have sat unused for years. Contamination from a former gas station and dry cleaner has plagued the area’s potential, especially since they sit just two blocks away from the Mount Baker light rail station. However, that’s all changing thanks to an innovative collaboration between the Mt. Baker Housing Association, the City of Seattle, and the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Click image for King 5's video on the Mt. Baker Gateway Project

Click image for King 5's video on the Mt. Baker Gateway Project

With the creation of a Redevelopment Opportunity Zone (ROZ), 150 units of affordable housing will soon go up in one of the City’s most racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods. This ROZ designation—the first-of-its-kind in the state—allows for state money to be used for the environmental cleanup. With this innovative model, these previously undevelopable parcels are on their way to becoming crucially needed affordable housing.

Aspect's Jessica Smith and Dave Cook at the site of the Mt. Baker Gateway project.

Aspect's Jessica Smith and Dave Cook at the site of the Mt. Baker Gateway project.

Aspect has been leading the environmental strategy with Mt. Baker Housing’s legal advisor, Seattle law firm, Perkins Coie. Like any complex urban brownfield project, progress requires a unique strategy, buy-in of stakeholders, and a demonstration of a win-win. The environmental cleanup consulting that Aspect is providing will set the stage for remedial cleanup of petroleum and solvent-contaminated soil and groundwater. The cleanup action will do more than benefit the parcels, it will improve environmental quality of this part of the neighborhood. Groundbreaking is estimated for 2019.

Look out for future project updates and milestones as we play our part in realizing the vision of this community and stakeholders for affordable, sustainable, and healthy housing in Seattle.