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‘He’s just so sick:’ Landfill employees concerned about arsenic exposure amid King County violations

Cedar Hills Regional Landfill is home to a years-long arsenic problem that has both plagued and puzzled the county.

Taylor Mirfendereski

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Published: 11:41 PM PST November 22, 2023
Updated: 10:19 AM PST November 23, 2023

Even the simplest of tasks are harder for Jon DeMello than for most people. 

Whether it’s a trip to the grocery store, a trip to the mailbox or just a walk up the stairs, he said he becomes so winded that he has to stop everything to catch his breath.

“It hasn’t been easy, that’s for sure,” he said. 

Jon DeMello

DeMello, 75, has been in and out of Washington state hospitals and medical clinics for years, searching for answers about why he developed the lesions on his lungs that doctors said are contributing to his respiratory problems. It’s the latest medical condition of many for the North Bend resident, who previously had kidney cancer and open heart surgery. 

Now, doctors who specialize in occupational and environmental hazards are looking into whether arsenic exposure at the King County landfill where DeMello works has affected his health. 

“He’s just so sick, and he’s not getting any better,” said his wife, Debbie DeMello.

For more than 30 years, DeMello has worked for King County’s Cedar Hills Regional Landfill as a truck driver. The 920-acre facility in Maple Valley is where all but two cities in King County dump their trash. But it’s also home to a years-long arsenic problem that has both plagued and puzzled the county – drawing attention from environmental regulators and concerns from employees. 

A KING 5 investigation found that for a decade, the King County Solid Waste Division repeatedly discovered high levels of arsenic at the Cedar Hills landfill – violating state and local rules that exist to protect the environment and public health.  Multiple landfill employees accused their bosses of failing to adequately inform employees or protect them from the highly toxic chemical, including DeMello and at least two King County engineers. 

“We’ve always been told that, ‘It’s not a hazardous environment. You’ve got nothing to worry about. You work in a safe environment,'” DeMello said. "We never were told that arsenic in high levels was at the landfill."  

Arsenic is a naturally occurring chemical that is found in food, water, soil and the air. It can also be released into the environment by certain agricultural and industrial processes.  

The inorganic form of arsenic is a highly toxic carcinogen that can cause negative health impacts from long-term exposure to high levels. According to the World Health Organization, adverse health effects can include heart disease, lung disease and cancer, but it can be difficult to distinguish the medical conditions caused by arsenic from conditions induced by other factors. 

The King County Public Health Department and the Solid Waste Division said the arsenic at Cedar Hills doesn't pose a health risk.  

But some workers are skeptical of that assessment and are calling for more thorough evaluations.

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