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Residents skeptical of plans to clean up old Kerr-McGee site

 

Garthia Elena Burnett

 

The Superfund arm of the Environmental Protection Agency has many challenges to overcome as they work to clear contaminants left from a 90-acre wood-treatment site on 14th Avenue North -- the first of which is trust. 

 

With a lifetime as Kerr-McGee as a neighbor and a decade of cleanup efforts, community members at a meeting Thursday night seemed hesitant to embrace Superfund as a solution. 

 

The federal Superfund program takes over contaminated land from private companies and directs cleanup. 

 

"We want to establish trust, but when you''ve been told for 10 years you''re safe and to find out you''re not, trust is lost," said Steve Jamison, pastor for Maranatha Faith Center. He is involved in ongoing litigation against Kerr-McGee. 

 

In 1999, Maranatha planned to expand and build a new facility at its 716 Waterworks Road campus, where the church owns most of the block and the houses. Doing underground utility work, Jamison and others encountered a "dark substance that smelled like turpentine," Jamison recalled. 

 

After reporting it to the city, he discovered the substance was creosote and was coming from Kerr-McGee. Creosote, a dark oily mixture commonly used in old wood-treatment facilities, contains ingredients now linked to cancer, skin irritation and breathing problems. 

 

Colonial Trust Co., which loaned the church $876,700 for its expansion project, then stopped the project. And the church filed bankruptcy to protect its assets while pursuing a $15 million lawsuit against Kerr-McGee, part of which is promised to Colonial. The church previously rejected a $1.5 million settlement offer from Kerr-McGee. 

 

"I hope they do what they say they''re going to do to clean it up," said Maggie Tony, who lives on 14th Avenue North and was raised on 20th Street North. 

 

Tony remembers playing outside as a child, when the air was filled with what looked like black "smut" from Kerr-McGee. 

 

"Then, we didn''t know what it was," she said. "I wish they had told us what was going on, and they could have done something about it then." 

 

The Kerr-McGee site had been in operation since 1928 before closing in 2003. Kerr-McGee produced pressure-treated railroad products, such as wooden cross ties, switch ties and timbers, at the Columbus plant, releasing creosote and pentachlorophenol into the air and groundwater. 

 

Christine Lovelace grew up in the 1700 block of Seventh Avenue North. As an adult she moved to nearby 20th Street North, still in the midst of Kerr-McGee. 

 

"Kerr-McGee was right behind me," she said. "In the beginning, when they said they were cleaning it up, it wasn''t done right, and we''re here again now." 

 

The EPA previously worked with Kerr-McGee, advising the company on how to keep from leaking contaminants into the environment. Now, with the company closed and bankrupt, the Superfund division has stepped in to add the site to the National Priorities List of hazardous waste sites and remove any contamination. 

 

"I''m not sure," Lovelace said about the Superfund project. "I just think it''s very sad the way things were handled and the way they are now." 

 

Residents also took local politicians to task, saying they took no active role in helping to protect community members and get the contamination cleared. Mayor Robert Smith attended the meeting at Lee Middle School, as did City Councilmen Fred Stewart and Kabir Karriem, whose districts are the primary points of concern. 

 

Kerr-McGee is bordered by 14th Avenue to the north and Union Cemetery to the south. Groundwater contamination was found at the site. The most concentrated areas of contamination were beneath the old process area and at a railroad loading area. 

 

Superfund team members are taking samples of the area within a half-mile radius of the site, primarily on Moss Street, Waterworks Road and Seventh Avenue, and looking at any specific areas of concern such as Propst Park, where creosote was found in a ditch in 2006, during work on a drainage culvert. Community members also voiced concerned contaminated soil had been moved to other parts of the city and county. 

 

About five years ago, Mississippi Valley Gas ran into "gray sludge" when trying to cut gas to the Kerr-McGee site, Turner Jackson remembered. At the time, he owned the Flamingo Lounge (now club Legends) at 2005 13th Ave. N. 

 

"Because I was up on a hill, I didn''t think (the creosote) would travel uphill, but it did," Turner said. 

 

Past studies have shown the city''s drinking water is not contaminated, reported Jennifer Wendel, National Priorities List coordinator. Areas of most concern are residential areas along the site''s drainage path, which dumps into the Luxapalila Creek. 

 

There has been some creosote and PCP found in ditches along the Kerr-McGee property, she said. 

 

A pump-and-treat system previously installed by Kerr-McGee will be enhanced, said Franklin Hill, Superfund Division 4 director. 

 

"From the street, it looks like an open field and all the issues have been addressed," Hill said. "We believe issues still exist." 

 

The Kerr-McGee site will be proposed to the National Priorities List in March, after which there will be a period for public input. From there, Hill admitted, "It''s going to be a long road. ... It is a long process." 

 

"In the meantime, we want to make sure no one is immediately in harm''s way," he said. 

 

Over time, Superfund will examine stretches of creek and the depths of groundwater contamination and report those findings to the community. 

 

Hill encouraged those inquiring about lawsuit settlements to focus on the health of the community. Superfund has no involvement with past or pending litigation involving the Kerr-McGee site. He also said the goal is for the site to be redevelopable. 

 

About 160 people attended Thursday night''s meeting; the EPA sent out 389 meeting notices to residents within a half-mile radius of the site. 

 

Emergency response teams will begin taking samples Oct. 25.

 

 

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