Springfield and Clark County leaders want President Obama to overturn a Superfund cleanup plan that they feel could threaten local drinking water for generations to come.
Everyone agrees: The Tremont City Barrel Fill — an 8.5-acre section of a closed landfill for industrial waste barrels that contains 1.5 million gallons of hazardous waste buried in the ground — could be a risk to public health if left in its current state.
Area political and health leaders hand-delivered a letter to President Barack Obama’s aides during his campaign stop here Nov. 2 in an attempt to reverse a decision made by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on how to clean up the site. They are still waiting for a response.
Rainwater draining through the unlined barrels and containment pools could eventually contaminate the area’s sole source aquifer, which serves 85,000 customers in Clark and Montgomery counties, according to EPA reports.
The Ohio EPA, city, county, German Township and health officials were all disappointed by the U.S. EPA’s decision in September of 2011. It called for barrels containing industrial waste to be dug up and then reburied on-site in a lined landfill rather than removing all the waste as recommended by the Ohio EPA and other civic leaders.
The letter to the president, written by Clark County Combined Health District Commissioner Charles Patterson, was delivered to Obama’s aides by City Commissioner Joyce Chilton. It states area leaders are concerned about the “lack of due process in the ongoing Superfund proceedings” and implores the president’s “help and guidance” in the water issue.
“We feel it is imperative for U.S. EPA officials in Washington to examine this situation,” the letter states.
From 1976 to 1979, according to the letter, 51,500 drums and 300,000 gallons of industrial waste were disposed in unlined pits.
Last June, the EPA announced it was preparing a negotiation package for the Department of Justice, which serves as the representative for potentially responsible parties. The EPA will send notice to potentially responsible parties on their cleanup plans and why they feel they’re liable.
“No contracts have been signed,” Patterson said.
Patterson said the district also hasn’t heard anything from the U.S. EPA on when cleanup could begin.
In a statement last week, the U.S. EPA said there is no process for appealing Superfund decisions. Any new data and information submitted after a decision has been signed may be considered in making a change to the remedy. However, the EPA has not received any new information “to consider such a change.”
“Once that record of decision is made, it’s hard to get that changed,” Patterson said. “It’s not set in stone, but it’s pretty firm in the process.”
They’re still waiting on a response from the White House but understand it will take time, especially in light of the recent election and the resignation of EPA administrator Lisa Jackson.
“We haven’t had a response yet. It takes time,” said City Commissioner Kevin O’Neill, the city’s liaison to the health district. “We’re anxious to see, but it would be a disservice to all of Clark County because if we lose our water, we’re done.”
“I delivered the letter and asked Charlie to follow up, so we’ll see what happens,” Chilton said.
The letter says the original cleanup plan, Alternative 4a, proposed by U.S. EPA Region 5 in the summer of 2010 would remove all hazardous waste from the site, and was agreed to by the Ohio EPA and all local government jurisdictions. The estimated cost of the original cleanup plan was approximately $56 million.
“We thought it was a done deal,” said Jeff Briner, the chairman of Citizens for Wise Approaches Toward Environmental Resources, or CF/Water.
On the last day of the extended public comment period, one responsible party who hadn’t participated in the process for more than 10 years proposed a new plan, Alternative 9a, which would excavate all of the waste but only remove the liquid off site. Solid wastes would be re-disposed on site and a landfill liner would be installed, requiring monitoring to occur. The cost of the new plan was approximately $28 million.
“It was disheartening after everyone had worked so hard to come to a mutual agreement,” Chilton said.
The U.S. EPA reached its decision to implement Alternative 9a in September of 2011. On its Superfund website, the U.S. EPA stated the cleanup will “protect people and the environment over the long-term, comply with state and federal regulations, can be implemented, and is cost-effective as an alternative for excavating the contaminated soil and waste.”
Local and state officials remain opposed to the plan, according to the letter. Public comment periods were held after two community meetings, but the letter states a due process issue occurred when changes made to the new plan were explained after the public comment period closed. The letter also states U.S. EPA Region 5 used a 2002 report to support the new plan, but does not use parts of the same report that “clearly refute the potential effectiveness of the alternative.”
Officials informed state and federal legislators of their opposition to the new plan, but no progress had been made in appealing the decision.
“All we’re asking for is a review,” Patterson said.
Ohio EPA spokeswoman Heather Lauer said the OEPA would prefer to Alternative 4a. They believe Alternative 9a may have a better chance of failing, but they haven’t seen the work plan.
“Ohio EPA believes 9a may be effective, but we think 4a is more protective,” Lauer said. “It seems like it’s splitting hairs, but we’re done fighting about it.”
The White House Press Office referred comment to the U.S. EPA.
During his Springfield speech, Obama said: “We believe America is stronger when everybody can count on affordable health insurance and Medicare and Social Security — when our kids are protected from toxic dumping and pollution.”
Both Chilton and O’Neill said the president’s mention of toxic waste may have been an indication he saw the letter.
“That tells me he did read the letter,” O’Neill said.
CF/Water’s Briner was happy local leaders took their concerns to the highest level.
“I’m glad to hear the city commission delivered the letter, and I hope President Obama will read it and act on it,” Briner said. “I think the safest thing for all concerned would be to remove all the contaminants and not return them in any shape or form.”
Alternative 9a is better than nothing, Patterson said, but, “we still don’t believe its the best.”
The goal is to eliminate the possibility of the contamination because water is one of the most important resources in Clark County.
“Are we being extra protective? Absolutely,” Patterson said, “but if you’re already digging up the barrels and handling them, why would you not just dig up and send them off-site?”