Disagreement continues as Koppers plans progress
Published: Sunday, June 9, 2013 at 7:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, June 9, 2013 at 7:34 p.m.
Thirty years after the Cabot/Koppers wood treatment plant in Gainesville was put on the federal Superfund site list, cleanup plans trudge ahead as the community disagreement and dispute continue.
If you go
What: Open house on Florida Department of Health’s health consultation on indoor dust tests near Koppers Superfund site.
When: Monday, 3-8 p.m.
Where: Stephen Foster Elementary School, 3800 NW Sixth St., Gainesville
Beazer East Inc., which operated the Koppers plant for several decades, plans to start work in January to remove and replace a foot of contaminated soil and plant new landscaping at several dozen residential yards directly west of the site.
There is one sentiment in the community that this off-site cleanup represents a significant step in the renewal of the area of the Stephen Foster neighborhood adjacent to the plant property, which spans about 90 acres off the 200 block of Northwest 23rd Avenue.
“I think that we have made tremendous progress over the last three years,” said Kim Popejoy with the nonprofit Protect Gainesville's Citizens. “Under the previous decisions that had been made, there was no remediation off-site. But because of intense community involvement, we are getting a vigorous off-site cleanup.”
The opposing sentiment is also present in the neighborhood. There is the argument that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has required too little of Beazer East and a continued push to have the federal government make the company buy homes in the neighborhood and relocate residents.
There is ongoing opposition to a plan that removes contaminated soils from neighboring yards and areas of the Superfund property only to store it on site in an underground, capped containment area.
On Thursday, a contingent of area residents, including some who live outside the area slated for cleanup and members of one of the two Stephen Foster neighborhood associations organized in the area, again went to the Gainesville City Commission with demands for relocation.
Sandra Watts-Kennedy, the president of that neighborhood association, said the residents wanted to be moved from their toxic homes “while we are still alive.”
At the commission meeting, those residents reiterated claims of health problems linked to the site. Some alleged that phones have been tapped and that community members who speak out on the Koppers issue have been subject to intimidation.
These residents also argue that a firm hired by Beazer East had collected fraudulent soil samples from the yards of surrounding properties in determining the levels of chlorinated dioxin, a carcinogen present in a wood preservative used for decades at the Koppers plant.
The EPA approved the required cleanup plan in 2011 and the City Commission and Alachua County Commission continue to send off communications to the federal government seeking a more comprehensive plan that includes relocation of residents.
On Thursday, Gainesville Mayor Ed Braddy said the city should again lobby congressional representatives to push for a more stringent cleanup.
Scott Miller, site manager for the EPA, says the agency's conclusion remains that the level of off-site pollution levels does not warrant relocation.
“The decision stands,” he said.
As emotions run high and the dispute over the cleanup plans continues, agencies continue to release reports on the site and the surrounding area.
In 2012, the EPA authorized the collection and testing of indoor dust samples from 17 homes adjacent to the site and, as a point of comparison, 13 homes about 2 miles away. The agency concluded that, based on the dioxin levels present in those samples, there was no need to require the cleanup of the interior of homes.
In late May, the EPA and the Florida Department of Health both released reports on the tests. A DOH health consultation stated that there were some elevated levels of chlorinated dioxins in homes near the site. But the DOH concluded that exposure to the dioxin levels posed a “very low” cancer risk of one in 100,000.
“If there's no cause for alarm, then why are we doing tests, and why are we sending out leaflets cautioning children to wash their hands after going out in the yard?” asked Stuart Calwell, a West Virginia attorney representing residents in a lawsuit against Beazer East.
The EPA authorized those tests at the request of local government officials after tests Calwell's firm paid for showed extremely high levels of dioxin inside homes.
The EPA stated that the method used in those tests would detect not just chlorinated dioxins associated with the wood treatment process but brominated dioxins that are present in flame retardants used on household products such as carpets, televisions and computer monitors.
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, officials have said.
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.
Early this year, the EPA and Beazer East signed a legal agreement, known as a consent decree, binding the company to the implementation of the cleanup plan that the federal government approved in 2011.
The agreement, which a federal judge still has to approve, has received a “voluminous” amount of comments, said Cheryl Smout, an attorney with the Department of Justice. She said the DOJ should file responses with the federal court in one to three weeks.