Springfield leader wants lifetime warranty on hazardous waste cleanup


City Commissioner Kevin O’Neill wants a “lifetime warranty” that hazardous waste from the Tremont City Barrel Fill site in northern Clark County won’t affect Springfield’s drinking water.

After years of advocating for an extensive, $56 million cleanup plan, community activists are now backing a new version of a clean-up plan dubbed 9a that would cost an estimated $24 million.

RELATED: Activists question cleanup costs of Clark County hazardous waste

The barrel fill is an 8.5-acre section of a closed landfill that had been used for industrial waste barrels. It contains an estimated 1.5 million gallons of hazardous waste buried in the ground. If left in its current state, the site could be a risk to public health decades from now because the barrels could deteriorate and some of the chemicals leach into the groundwater, officials have said.

Community members and local leaders have long implored the U.S. EPA to remove all hazardous waste from the barrel fill — which they worry could seep into Springfield’s drinking water supply.

Clark County Health Commissioner Charles Patterson and People for Safe Water’s Marilyn Welker updated city commissioners on the site’s clean-up at Tuesday’s meeting.

MORE: Community wants Tremont Barrel Fill waste gone

The current U.S. EPA cleanup plan calls for digging up all of the barrels, taking out the ones with liquid waste and putting the barrels filled with solid waste back in place with the addition of a double liner and a leak detection system.

In recent months, Welker says the U.S. EPA made it clear to local legislators that it would move on to other projects if the community doesn’t cooperate with its less expensive plan.

“It was communicated to us very clearly,” Welker said. “Our assignment now is to push on 9a and to make those modifications go as far and as deep as we can. I don’t see that as, at this point, giving up the deepest and biggest concerns we have, which is that high quantity of very toxic materials.”

The change in direction comes in conflict with everything O’Neill has worked toward in the past 26 years, he said.

“It’s called a lifetime warranty,” O’Neill said. “It all has to go. We cannot afford any of it to be left because of what might happen … We didn’t cause this problem and we want it fixed. The city of Springfield is going to be the big loser if it does creep into our well system.”

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After reading a Springfield News-Sun story on the issue in early February, O’Neill was surprised by the number of people who were “ready to throw in the towel,” he said. He wants to hire professional legal counsel to examine the city and county’s position moving forward.

“We can’t lead them to believe that we’re willing to negotiate on that going away,” O’Neill said. “There are other ways to fix this. We haven’t even asked the community if they’re willing to fund it if necessary, and I think they would be … We have to have the courage and determination to hold their feet to the fire.”

People for Safe Water isn’t recommending something that’s a cop out, City Commissioner Karen Duncan said.

“It’s a very, very heartfelt, very difficult decision to make any kind of a compromise here,” she said. “There are things that we are absolutely going to not compromise on becasue those are the things we feel put our water at risk.”

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Future generations will be revisiting this, O’Neill said. The commission owes it to the community to give cost estimates on what a clean-up may cost, whether it be between $10 million, $15 million or $20 million, he said. The city just spent more than $50 million on EPA-mandated updates to its wastewater treatment plant, which he said might not be needed if the water supply is contaminated.

Welker won’t stop until there are answers to how protective liners and other modifications will be in the future, she said.

The federal EPA was expected to move forward with a $56 million plan, Alternative 4a, to remove all hazardous waste from the barrel fill. However, in 2011, the federal agency issued its final decision, the $28 million Alternative 9a, which called for barrels containing industrial waste to be dug up and then reburied on-site in a lined landfill. Officials and local citizens have fought for years to have the clean-up plan reverted back to Alternative 4a. Since that time, a modified version of Alternative 9a was estimated to cost about $24 million.

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People for Safe Water wants the site placed on the National Priorities List because its leaders say it will assure compliance, accountability and future monitoring. It’s also possible the federal agency could enforce action against the potentially responsible parties, Welker said.

A report completed in October by U.S. EPA consultant Tetra Tech recommended removal of nearly 1,000 barrels, described as “the worst of the worst.”

The activist group seeks permanent removal of certain barrels containing the most mobile and toxic chemicals. They’re meeting with Chicago-based project manager Jim Saric on March 23 — the first meeting since June 2016, Welker said.

While the most recent plan has been modified recently, more corrections are needed to ensure chemicals don’t seep into Springfield’s water supply, Patterson said. The ultimate goal is to get all of the hazardous waste off of the site, he said.

“We’re making progress toward that,” Patterson said. “I’m not going to sit here and promise the commission that that’s exactly where we’re going to end up, but we are making headway.”

The most important thing is for county and city officials to remain a united front, he said.

“We can’t let our guard down until this is done,” Patterson said.

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