As Koppers cleanup gets closer, concerns remain
Published: Sunday, February 24, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 6:09 p.m.
The sign on the fence grimly warns: “Contaminated area avoid contact with soil and water.”
This is the edge of the Koppers property, and it's bordered by a neighborhood of narrow roads, one-story, single-family homes and duplexes.
Allen Howard says he has lived here — along Northwest 26th Avenue east of Northwest Sixth Street — for about eight years.
Howard says he had no idea when he bought the home that he was moving in down the block from a contaminated site with a federal Superfund designation.
Today, he says he has a 4-year-old daughter who cannot play in the yard because of soil contamination.
After years of wrangling and negotiations, the Environmental Protection Agency and Beazer East, the company legally responsible for the contaminated site, have signed a binding agreement to move the cleanup ahead.
Howard said he is hoping for a solution that is not part of their approved plan. He said he wants his home purchased so he can move away.
“Pay me what I paid for the place, and I will just get out of here,” he said.
Thirty years after the Koppers location was first declared a Superfund site and two years after the EPA approved the cleanup plan for the former wood treatment plant and contaminated adjacent properties, concerns and opposition over the $90 million cleanup plan remain.
There will be no permanent relocation for residents in the adjacent Stephen Foster neighborhood who have contaminated soil in their yards. Instead, 6 to 12 inches of soil will be removed from yards that exceed the state's threshold for dioxin, a carcinogen produced in the wood treatment process. Those soils then will be replaced and new landscaping planted.
Soils removed from off-site yards and contaminated soil from the Koppers property will be stored on site in a roughly 30-acre excavated area. That area will be covered by an impermeable cap and contained by a slurry wall that extends 65 feet underground.
The layer of soil and sediment that serves as the protecting layer for the Upper Floridan Aquifer, called the Hawthorn Group, will serve as the bottom of the containment area.
Chemical treatments and mixtures including cement will be injected into the containment area to stabilize contaminated soils and keep contaminated groundwater in place. Contaminated groundwater also is being pumped out of the aquifer and treated — a process that already has begun.
At the Alachua County Commission meeting Tuesday and at the City Commission meeting Thursday, officials acknowledged that the cleanup plan, with its on-site storage of contaminated soils, does not accomplish all they had sought.
Still, county Environmental Protection Director Chris Bird said that, if the goal is changing the scope of the work required, “that train has left the station.”
The cleanup requirements were set once they got the EPA's approval in February 2011, Bird said.
With the public comment period now ongoing for the consent decree — the legal agreement between Beazer East and the EPA on the cleanup — Bird said the county has “to be careful what we ask for.”
“I think just having the scope of work as decided on implemented without any further delays, that is probably the most we can get out of this,” Bird told county commissioners Tuesday. “I think that's why we believe we have to be careful what we ask for during this comment period. I'm not going to recommend anything that's going to kill the deal.”
Bird said one of the areas Gainesville and Alachua County staff might weigh in on is the potential contamination of indoor dust in area homes.
Bird said there currently is no federal threshold for dioxin in dust samples. If one is set, local officials would like to see the cleanup of homes that exceed that threshold added to the actions Beazer East will be required to take.
Meanwhile, residents in Stephen Foster say they are frustrated and nervous.
Tyonna Manns rented a home west of the Koppers site in November. She said she did not know the history of the neighborhood or Koppers when she moved there with her 2-year-old child.
“I wouldn't have moved here if I knew the area was contaminated,” she said.
Several nearby residents are plaintiffs in a $10 million lawsuit against Beazer East and are seeking class-action status.
One of them, Roy Giersbach, lives directly west of the Koppers property. He's had a contaminated irrigation well capped, and the soil in his yard has dioxin levels several times above the threshold in state law, according to the complaint in the federal suit.
“Environmental justice is what I want. Nothing more, nothing less,” Giersbach said in a recent interview.
Residents are not the only ones who have expressed concern over contamination levels.
Last year, soil samples at the city Public Works materials storage yard north of Koppers showed elevated levels of dioxin.
In response, Stu Pearson, the retired city engineer who now works part time on the Koppers issue, said workers began wearing protective masks when in that area.
A wood treatment plant operated on the Koppers property from 1916 until December 2009. For decades, toxic chemicals including chromated copper arsenic, pentachlorophenol and creosote were discharged into unlined ponds on site.
Over the years, contamination from the plant has been recorded in Springstead and Hogtown creeks, in soils on and off the site and in the aquifer. Cleanup work to date has included cleaning sediments from the bed of Hogtown and Springstead creeks.
Large stormwater ponds now treat runoff before it flows into Springstead Creek and eventually into Hogtown Creek.
On-site recovery wells also have been drilled to pump contaminated water out of the aquifer and treat it.