Tests: Runoff from Koppers contains chemicals

Published: Thursday, January 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 31, 2008 at 10:02 p.m.

Local officials are concerned that rain water running off the Koppers wood-treatment facility near N. Main Street may be carrying arsenic and copper into Gainesville's creeks.

The international company based in Pittsburgh uses both chemicals at the industrial site off NW 23rd Avenue to treat wood utility poles, preventing insect and weather decay.

For the first time in seven years, Koppers in 2007 tested the storm water running off its 90-acre site and into Springstead Creek.

According to those tests, the results of which were requested by The Sun, the storm water leaving the Koppers site contained six times more arsenic and 13 times more copper than allowed under Koppers' permit with the state, said Jessica Kleinfelter, compliance and enforcement manager with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The DEP emphasized that those levels don't pose a threat to human health or safety.

However, they do exceed the levels set by the state for acceptable levels of copper and arsenic in storm water from industrial sites.

Representatives of Koppers issued a written response to inquiries from The Sun saying that the company is in the process of implementing a storm water pollution prevention plan that will improve the results of the next scheduled tests in 2010.

Who is responsible for the elevated levels of arsenic - a known carcinogen - and copper - a heavy metal that can be detrimental to wildlife - in Springstead Creek is a complicated issue.

Koppers operates on what is already a federal Superfund toxic-waste site.

The Cabot-Koppers Superfund site suffers from a legacy of contamination from two different companies that have operated on the site in past decades:

The former company Cabot Carbon operated next door to Koppers and filled pits with the chemicals used in the making of charcoal prior to 1970.

Koppers Company Inc., which beginning in 1916 had a wood-treatment facility on the site that allowed three chemicals to seep into the ground, creating contamination that has not been cleaned up in the 25 years in which the site has been on the national Superfund list.

"Koppers is continuing to operate this plant there at the same time that we've got this big Superfund clean-up," said Chris Bird, director of the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department. "Koppers is using some of the same chemicals that were part of the historic properties' contamination."

Bird likened the effort by the state, federal and county agencies to have the ground water contamination cleaned up to trying to make a bed while someone is sleeping in it.

"The (Superfund sites) that are easier are the ones that are abandoned, and there's nothing going on that's causing ongoing pollution," Bird said. "It creates a real challenge. It just makes it really hard to figure out (whether there is) any pollution being contributed from current housekeeping practices that can be separated from the historic contamination."

In 1988, Beazer East, a company based in Pittsburgh, purchased the legal and financial responsibility from Koppers for clean-up efforts at its many facilities across the nation.

The new Koppers Inc. then resumed possession of the land and operations on NW 23rd Avenue.

Koppers has a generic permit from the DEP allowing it to discharge water into the environment. However, that permit requires the water to be tested during two years of Koppers' five-year permit.

Between 2001 and 2007, no data was collected; Koppers contends the reason no data was taken was due to rainfall that was insufficient to create a discharge off the property.

Kleinfelter said the state has looked at the historical data and is considering creating an individualized permitting process for Koppers that would regulate operations better than the current generic storm water discharge permit.

The lack of historical storm water testing data was one of several issues that the Gainesville Koppers facility was cited for during a 2005 inspection conducted by the EPA.

Another deficiency noted during the inspection was that treated wood dripped chemicals directly onto the ground, and the "incidental drippage of CCA on the ground" was not cleaned up immediately, according to Laura Niles, spokeswoman for the EPA.

A written response from Koppers said the company disagreed with many of the findings in the 2005 inspection:

"The 2005 EPA inspection referenced 'drippage.' Koppers disputed EPA's characterization and noted that the Gainesville plant complies with all regulations regarding drippage, including the requirement to remove incidental drippage immediately.

"Despite disagreeing with many of the findings of the 2005 inspection, those findings were included in a May 2008 settlement with the EPA."

The EPA settled a $500,000 civil penalty against Koppers in May 2008 as a result of similar deficiencies found at plants across the southeastern United States, including the Gainesville site, during 2005 inspections and also as a result of civil violations self-reported by Koppers that had occurred since 2003.

Niles said the company spent about $3,000 on corrective actions between the plant in Gainesville and another in Guthrie, Ky.

Koppers is still using the controversial chemical chromated copper arsenate (CCA) to treat wood utility poles to prevent insect and weather decay.

CCA was also used at the site by the former Koppers Company Inc. and is one of the three chemicals contributing to the legacy of contamination on the NW 23rd Avenue site.

Many researchers, including Timothy Townsend, a University of Florida professor of environmental engineering, have studied the potential of CCA to leach out of treated wood and affect the surrounding environment.

"Relatively large amounts of the chemicals can exit the wood when it's exposed to water," Townsend said. "CCA-treated wood we found leaches enough arsenic that, under normal circumstances, when you throw that wood away, it would have to be treated as hazardous waste."

In 2002, CCA-treated wood was banned from residential use by the EPA out of fear that arsenic, a known carcinogen, could pose a threat to humans.

However, the chemical is still used for industrial purposes, including those at the local Koppers facility.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has not only been involved with trying to ensure that the Cabot-Koppers Superfund site maintains a high federal profile, but he also championed the cause in 2002 to ban residential use of CCA.

"It would be an outrage if pollution there is ongoing," wrote a spokesman for Sen. Nelson. "It's a matter of public safety. That's why I've pressed both state and federal regulators to work with local officials to make sure any such contamination is stopped."

Townsend said CCA is a potentially harmful chemical that he would rather not have build up in his soil and ground water.

"If someone is continuing to treat CCA wood, you would hope they'd follow all appropriate regulations in terms of storing and collecting the preservative after it comes out of the treatment vessel," said Townsend, who is not familiar with the operations at Koppers. "If you have a facility that treats wood with CCA, you're naturally going to be concerned with runoff from that site getting in the soil."

Kleinfelter said the DEP is working with Koppers to implement best practices in Gainesville such as digging out accumulated silt in the drainage ditch.

"Our review determined that there has been a sediment buildup in the ditch over the years, despite periodic maintenance," Koppers wrote in a statement to The Sun. "We believe that our proposal to remove sediment from the ditch would improve storm water flow to attain discharge levels below the permit benchmarks."

Kleinfelter said that action would require approval from the EPA because of the Koppers site being a Superfund site.

Local residents who live in the nearby Stephen Foster neighborhood are concerned about the rain water flowing into Springstead Creek.

Robert Pearce, president of the Stephen Foster neighborhood association, has visited the Koppers site and captured video of storm water rushing off the site during storms.

Pearce said he doesn't believe that in 2002 and 2004 - the years sampling were required - there wasn't enough water to create a discharge off the property.

"There is so much water coming off of that property, it was actually up to my knees," said Pearce, who has lived in his house for two years. "All of that literally flows through my backyard."

Both 2002 and 2004 had at least one day every quarter that received at least one inch of rain in Gainesville, according to data from the National Weather Service in Jacksonville.

Pearce is concerned that the chemicals will have an adverse effect on Springstead Creek.

The data collected by Koppers in 2007 showed that storm water running into the creek from the 87-acre site contained 1.008 parts per million of arsenic and 0.829 parts per million of copper.

Those numbers are still significantly below state standards for Class 3 bodies of water, which Springstead falls under based on water flow. Those quality standards, at which point human health and safety are in danger, are set at 50 parts per million of arsenic and at 28.5 parts per million of copper.

Water coming from the Koppers site and into Springstead significantly exceeds the safe water drinking standard for arsenic, which is 0.01 parts per million.

Townsend said the arsenic concentration coming out of most landfills is between 0.05 to 0.15 parts per million.

"I study landfills all the time, and the amount of arsenic that is in landfill leachate is lower than the amount of arsenic in (the 2007) study," Townsend said. Regardless of how high the numbers in the storm water testing conducted for the Florida DEP permit, the agency has little recourse against the roughly 3,000 industries in the state that are permitted to discharge untreated storm water into the environment.

"It is fairly common for folks to exceed their benchmark values," said Kleinfelter with the Florida DEP. "The (Koppers numbers) are nothing to sneeze at, but it's not hundreds of times over like some industries."

Koppers will be required to test the water again in 2010, and when its permit comes up for renewal in 2011, if it has continued to exceed the storm water levels, Kleinfelter said the state may consider not renewing the permit.

"Unfortunately, we're dealing with state laws here and state permits and having an exceedence of these benchmark concentrations is not considered a violation of their permit," said John Mousa, pollution prevention manager for the Alachua County Department of Environmental Protection.

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