Cleanup firm: Koppers no threat to well water

Published: Wednesday, January 19, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 18, 2005 at 11:25 p.m.
A Pittsburgh-based environmental firm responsible for cleaning toxins beneath the Cabot-Koppers Superfund property has concluded that pollutants at the site pose no threat to Gainesville's drinking water supply.
The assertion, made during a one-hour interview with The Sun Tuesday, contradicts earlier claims by Gainesville Regional Utilities that without immediate cleanup action, the city's Murphree Wellfield could become contaminated.
"We have a presence" of creosote and other materials in groundwater, said Michael Slenska, an environmental manager with the company, Beazer East Inc., which briefly owned the Kopper site. "But we're not clear on the magnitude of the presence."
As for GRU's claims that chemicals from the site near NW 23rd Avenue and N. Main Street could contaminate city wells two miles away, Slenska said simply, "We don't agree."
Questions surrounding the cleanup and potential impacts have been topics of discussions in Alachua County for decades. The federal government first considered the site a priority in the early 1980s, and listed it with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund program in 1983.
Today, Koppers continues to operate a wood-treating facility onsite.
For nearly 20 years, remediation progressed largely without controversy, as company and regulatory officials agreed that the best way to deal with the site would be to entomb its waste. The strategy was designed to keep costs low while protecting the underlying Florida Aquifer - which feeds many city wells, including those at the Murphree - from pine tar and wood-preserving residue left over since the 1940s.
But in September 2003, Beazer's own investigation began to poke holes in this approach. That year, environmental experts announced that low levels of arsenic, benzene and other toxins had found their way more than 150 feet below the surface into the aquifer. Since then, countless studies have been launched to help shed new light on the scope of the Cabot-Koppers problem.
One of the more troubling findings was made public last year, when Beazer unearthed evidence that a highly mobile and toxic breed of chemicals - known as dense nonaqueous phase liquids, or DNAPLs - had been detected in the site's soil and groundwater. In one well, for example, levels of the material exceeded 1,200 parts per billion, company data show.
Those findings have led to a new wave of studies from both sides, with GRU producing the most recent installment earlier this month. Beginning at 9 a.m. today at the Hilton University of Florida Conference Center, Beazer and GRU will sit down behind closed doors with environmental officials from Alachua County, Jacksonville and Atlanta to chart the cleanup's future.
For their part, GRU has maintained that while waste from the Koppers site is not posing an immediate public health threat, action must be taken now to slow the tide of pollution moving toward city wells.
The calls, which have attracted the attention of leaders in Washington, including Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, were reiterated Tuesday.
"Our expert team doesn't agree with (Beazer's) contention," said Rick Hutton, a senior GRU engineer.
"We do know that contamination is moving into the Florida Aquifer, and we know that if it's moving into the Florida Aquifer, it's going to be moving toward our wellfield."
It remains unclear how and when the disagreement will be settled. Both sides said today's meeting with the EPA should begin to move the process toward a final resolution.
But given the site's long history, it could be years before a cleanup solution is agreed upon.
And if recent letters to The Sun are any indication, even those involved are growing frustrated with the project's progress.
"Beazer has continued to communicate its commitment to work with the agencies to develop a final remediation strategy that ensures the protection of Gainesville's drinking-water supply," Anthony Randazzo, president of a local geology company contracted by Beazer to assist with site investigation, wrote in a letter to the paper earlier this week.
"I hope the local agencies will commit to working with Beazer to find an appropriate solution instead of dueling it out in the media."
Greg Bruno can be reached at (352) 374-5026.

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