Motorists travel along 14th Avenue by a drainage ditch near the site of the old Kerr-McGee plant. A transfer agreement soon to be finalized will start the long-awaited process of cleaning the contaminated area and replacing the soil before the city assumes ownership of the area and installs concrete to improve drainage. Photo by: Micah Green/Dispatch Staff
February 21, 2014 11:25:31 AM
A painstaking process to make drainage improvements to a contaminated ditch on 14th Avenue North is taking a major step forward.
Columbus councilmen authorized mayor Robert Smith to execute an environmental action and transfer agreement between the city and Multistate Environmental Response Trust (MST). The agreement is expected to be finalized next week when representatives of both entities discuss the agreement's terms and closing dates.
In December, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District New York ruled against Kerr-McGee, which owned several wood-treating plants across the country, including one in Columbus. In that judgment, the court found the corporation liable for environmental contamination at multiple sites. The court awarded damages between approximately $5.2 billion and $14.2 billion to the plaintiffs which, even at the lowest estimates, represent the largest amount ever awarded in a bankruptcy proceeding for governmental environmental claims and liabilities. Approximately $4.5 billion to $12.4 billion will go toward cleanup at contaminated sites across the country, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
"The Court's decision makes a strong statement that companies should take responsibility for the toxic pollution they cause," EPA Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Assistant Administrator Cynthia Giles said in a press release. "Those that manipulate their assets and leave American taxpayers to foot the bill to clean up their mess will be held accountable. This is a huge win for public health and the environment, as proceeds from the decision will fund needed cleanups across America."
The court's decision resulted in the creation of several environmental trusts including MST and divided damages owed by the defendant among the trusts to work with municipalities where contaminated sites are located. That meant between $1.1 and $3.1 billion for MST to clean up more than two dozen sites nationwide, including the one in Columbus, which was designated by the EPA as a Superfund site and added to the National Priorities List of hazardous waste sites in 2011.
City engineering consultant Kevin Stafford of Neel-Schaffer said MST's end of the bargain is to remove timber containing creosote, a wood preserving chemical that has been linked to cancer in recent years, and clean the ditch and soil of all contaminants before constructing a new ditch -- all on its own dime. This protects the trust from liability when the city contracts a company to concrete the ditch. The city will use $800,000 in funding awarded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to pay for those improvements.
The portion of the ditch in question runs approximately 1,700 linear feet between 23rd Street and the rail line on the east side of the old Kerr-McGee property.
The transfer agreement currently includes terms dictating the city must have a design for its end of the project that is acceptable to both MST and EPA, as well as an estimate from the city of costs to do all its work. Stafford said these and other terms will be discussed when city and MST officials meet next week.
The Columbus plant was closed and sealed off in 2003 after nearly 75 years of operation. After the closure, environmental testing agencies discovered creosote contamination in sediment samples from drainage ditches and residential property.
City attorney Jeff Turnage said all parties involved are trying to fix the quality-of-life issue that has long affected the area.
"We are all trying to pull together and do some things to benefit the citizens living that area and hopefully lessen the potential for environmental toxins to be washed down stream," he said.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.
1. Councilman Turner sues mayor, city COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
3. Starkville moms embark on project that looks through the lens of autism STARKVILLE & OKTIBBEHA COUNTY
5. Motorcyclist dies Tuesday in Hwy 82 crash COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY