April 19, 2014 11:00:00 PM
Maranatha Faith Center Pastor Steve Jamison sees the $5.15 billion settlement from Anadarko Petroleum Corporation as a major turning point in the 15-year fight his East Columbus church has led to remediate the contamination from the Kerr-McGee site and protect the safety of those who live near it.
The site has been handed over from the Environmental Protection Agency to Multistate Environmental Response Trust and nearly $68 million of that settlement will be used to clean up the 90-acre site that was shut down in 2003, as well as other places where creosote is located. Regular exposure to creosote, a wood preservative used extensively at the plant while it was in operation, was determined to be carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
The Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration set a permissible exposure limit of 0.2 milligrams of creosote per cubic meter of air in the workplace during an eight-hour day and required industries report spills or accidental release into the environment of more than one pound. In 2006, The Dispatch spoke to three former Kerr-McGee employees who said spills were common not only at the site but when they would move railroad cross ties treated with creosote across 14th Avenue for drying.
The details of the clean-up plan take 18-24 months to develop through an investigation of the extent and range of the contamination and another six months of EPA review before it issues a record of decision(its selected plan for cleaning the areas), before the process can take place.
Jamison, who established the Memphis Town Community Action Group in 2012 to work with EPA and expedite the process of cleaning the affected land, said the $68 million will be helpful in finally addressing a problem that has been a major health and safety issue in the East Columbus neighborhood, but believes more may be needed and that the overall settlement was paltry considering the hundreds of former Kerr-McGee sites across the country that have had similar issues.
In December, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York found Kerr-McGee liable for environmental contamination worth anywhere from $5.2 to $14.2 billion. The United States Department of Justice and EPA, which filed the suit, settled for the $5.15 billion from Anadarko, which bought Kerr-McGee's major assets in 2006.
"It's just underfunded," Jamison said. "For the damage Kerr-McGee did to Columbus and other areas across the nation, I think the federal government let Kerr-McGee off with a slap on the wrist. No one was made whole but Kerr-McGee."
Who is Multistate?
Multistate was created in 2011 when the EPA designated the Columbus location as a Superfund site. It is a trustee group of Greenfield Environmental Trust Group, a minority-owned, women's business that has earned multiple awards for Superfund site cleanup since it was established in 1989. Cynthia Brooks, company president, said. Multistate is managing 23 other sites similar to the one in Columbus as well as more than 400 other smaller ones.
"We step in and take ownership of the hazardous waste sites when there are problems with the owner, either because they're bankrupt or a site has been orphaned and nobody wants to own it for all the obvious reasons," Brooks said. "Our priorities are the protection of public health and the environment. We have a duty of loyalty to the beneficiaries of this trust. We take a community-based approach to how we clean up and ultimately redevelop these sites. We own, manage and clean up these sites to help facilitate their redevelopment and long-term stewardships. Governmental or private entities will be taking on ownership and hopefully productive reuse of the sites we're responsible for. We are very interested in and concerned about what the communities want to see happen at these sites."
As for the Columbus site, the 18-24 month investigation is needed to assess the extent of the contamination and determine every place where creosote may have ended up away from the site. After the six-month public review period ends and EPA renders its ruling, the actual work itself will probably take place over several years, Brooks said. However, work on remediating the 14th Avenue drainage ditch, which is considered a separate project, is in the design process now and construction will begin this year, she said, and should be wrapped up in 2015. It will include widening the road to accommodate heavy trucks and equipment.
"Site investigation is needed to characterize the nature and extent of the contamination to understand how big the problem is and how far off site it has come to reside," Brooks said. "Until we have completed a full characterization of the contamination from the Kerr-McGee site, we don't know what the cleanup will look like or what it will cost."
The good news, Brooks said, is that the EPA has added this to its national priorities list of the most hazardous sites in the country, which means EPA would seek federal money to make up for insufficient funds. Brooks said Multistate will also be mindful of its budget for the site.
"We have to be both protective of public health and mindful of cost," she said. "We have finite funds for all of these sites to get the job done."
General procedures will include crews using excavators to dig out soil that has been identified as affected as well as drilling wells and taking soil samples.
"If the hazardous wastes are going to be consolidated on site there would be construction of whatever cells there might be to contain contamination so that there's no future exposure," Brooks said. "You'll see wells getting drilled. Groundwater cleanups cover the gamut from cleaning in place to extraction and treatment of contaminated water."
Who is Tronox Tort Trust?
The $68 million that will be used in Columbus can only be used for investigation and site cleanup and is a portion of $4.53 billion of the settlement designated strictly for site remediation. A separate trust has been established to deal only with claims from people who have experienced injury or sickness as a result of exposure to the creosote. The Tronox Tort Trust is receiving $618 million to pay claims to those who have experienced these affects at all the affected sites in the country. A hotline (800-753-4280) and email address (email@example.com) have been set up to guide those affected on how their claims can be processed.
The Memphis Town Community Action Group's next meeting Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Genesis Church on 23rd Street North will have EPA and Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality representatives on hand to explain plans for investigation and remediation of the site in greater detail. Only site remediation will be discussed and no representatives from Tronox Tort Trust will be there to discuss personal claims.
Reusing the site
Jamison said part of the site remediation funding should include relocating residents close to the site and installing solar panels that can be used for energy. He believes portions of areas have so much creosote that removing all of it would be impossible, but containing those areas so they are blocked from further public exposure would still achieve the goal of ensuring the public's safety and welfare, he said.
"We think the best thing to do is to get the people off of it and then use the land for something else. The EPA would have to contain the contaminants, define the parameters and put down retention walls to contain the contamination in that site. Then you cap it off and with those solar farms, they put solar panels out there and you can't see the ground. There are many ways that can be used and be profitable and usable without humans having to be on it."
While the arrival of Multistate symbolizes the most significant step toward rectifying the issues at the site and ditch, it has been long overdue, Jamison said. He believes the delay was partly due to local leaders not stepping up and raising awareness as well as apathy from EPA about the nature of the environmental damage that has been caused in Columbus.
"The entire 15 years we've been fighting this fight for a community who has lost its property value and has been exposed to serious health problems and dangerous situations. The tragedy is not one politician from the community has come forward and tried to fight for it. They're coming on board now because we have the EPA in town now and we have the federal government saying 'It's time to do this' and we have money on board now," Jamison said. "I fought for it because I knew how bad it was and saw what it was doing to my property and to people. I had health effects. I got sick from it. There were meetings I went to and trips I took to Atlanta to talk to EPA. We spent personal money, a bunch of money to prove to the EPA that we weren't safe. Once we spent that money, did our own testing and showed we weren't safe, EPA was forced to come in and say, 'You've got a problem.'"
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.