Dissatisfaction flows over Koppers cleanup


Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 10:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 10:36 p.m.

It was a meeting 30 years in the making.

The public weighed in Wednesday on the cleanup plan for the Koppers property, the site off Northwest 23rd Avenue that has been on the federal Superfund list since 1983.

For two hours, dissatisfaction filled the air in a half-filled auditorium at Stephen Foster Elementary School.

The Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency organized the meeting to solicit comment on the consent decree, the legal agreement binding the company Beazer East to the cleanup plan for the property.

But the public came to share their concerns and opposition with the cleanup plan itself, which the EPA had given final approval to in early 2011.

Wednesday evening brought renewed calls to buy up homes and relocate residents away from the area and to haul off contaminated soils instead of consolidating and containing them on site behind a slurry wall stretching 65 feet under the ground.

Speakers also pushed to expand the cleanup of residential properties beyond the removal of yard soils contaminated by dioxin, a carcinogen released in some wood treatment processes. Speakers wanted the cleanup to include the interior of homes.

There was skepticism over the EPA's conclusion that tests of indoor dust samples showed no health risks from dioxin inside these homes.

None of those steps are part of the current federal requirements for Beazer East, the firm legally responsible for the cleanup of the former wood treatment plant off Northwest 23rd Avenue — a short distance east of Northwest Sixth Street.

Sharon Sheets said she has lived down the street from the Koppers property for more than 30 years. Wednesday evening, Sheets was one of several residents of the Stephen Foster neighborhood who attributed their health problems to the Koppers plant.

"I'm praying for the opportunity to have my house purchased from me," she said.

There was also a push for more widespread cleanup on the property itself, where a wood treatment plant operated for nearly 100 years.

Robert Pearce, with the Stephen Foster Neighborhood Association and Protect Gainesville Citizens Inc., said the plan to lay down two feet of topsoil on portions of the property outside the 30-acre containment area "will not sufficiently protect human health or the environment" and could hamper the long-term plans to redevelop the property.

Before the meeting, protesters stood at the intersection of Northwest Sixth Street and 39th Avenue, in front of Stephen Foster Elementary, carrying signs with messages such as "This is a cover up not a clean up."

Inside the school auditorium, a representative of an attorney who has a federal lawsuit against Beazer East that seeks class-action status video-recorded the meeting.

The federal government and Beazer East negotiated for two years before reaching agreement on the consent decree, which now will head to a federal judge in Gainesville to approve or reject.

Still, Cheryl Smout, an attorney for the Department of Justice, told the frustrated crowd that there was precedent for the federal government to pull back and revisit a consent decree based on public input.

"This is not all for show," Smout said of the meeting. "This is not a done deal."

If the consent decree does go through, Scott Miller, a project manager with the EPA, said the cleanup of off-site soil could begin in late 2013 or early 2014 and it could be five years before completion.

The consent decree and related documents are available online at http://usdoj.gov//enrd/Consent_Decrees.html.

The public comment period lasts until March 15. Comments may be submitted via email at ees.enrd@usdoj.gov

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