Anglers eating Rocky Creek fish could be harmed, Superfund report finds

hduncan@macon.comOctober 1, 2012 

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Anyone who ate fish caught in Rocky Creek south of the Armstrong World Industries Superfund site in Macon could have been harmed by chemical contamination trapped in the fish tissues, according to an assessment by the Georgia Department of Public Health.

The public can comment on the report until Oct. 12.

The public health assessment, released last month, was completed as an early step in the Superfund cleanup process. The federal Superfund program uses the National Priorities List to identify the most polluted properties in the country, and it can help foot the bill for their cleanup, although responsible parties that are still around are generally required to pay.

Armstrong, which has manufactured ceiling tiles in south Macon since 1948, was added to the list a year ago. It has been identified as the source of soil and fish tissue contamination from polychlorinated biphenyls, a flame-retardant lubricant and coolant that has been linked to cancer. In addition, soil at several former landfills and a ditch on the Armstrong property have some metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon contamination, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Armstrong long denied that any ceiling panels treated with PCBs were ever handled in Macon. But an EPA fact sheet about the site states that the tiles were believed to have been recycled at the plant.

The public health assessment didn’t break much new ground. PCBs had been found accumulating in the tissues of fish in Rocky Creek more than a decade ago, and they have also been found in fish in the Ocmulgee River near the juncture with Rocky Creek. A single warning sign was posted at a popular fishing spot where the Houston Road bridge crosses the creek.

But residents continue to fish in the area, and the risk had not previously been quantified. The assessment was based on fish tissue samples from the late 1990s and water and soil sampling conducted in 2009.

The public health assessment indicates that people who eat fish caught in the creek downstream of the Armstrong site could be exposed to PCBs at a level that could harm their health, and those people may have an increased cancer risk.

It states that if a person eats 6 ounces of fish containing the highest level of PCBs found in Rocky Creek fish samples, the dose would approach the amount found to cause immunological effects in adult monkeys.

However, the study also found that for the average amount of PCBs in Rocky Creek fish, a recreational fisherman would find his cancer risk increased by just one extra case per 10,000 people.

PCB exposure and the accompanying health risk are reduced when the fish are filleted rather than pan-fried, the report stated. That’s because PCBs are mostly stored in fat tissues and organs.

The report indicated that exposure to the soil and surface water contamination at Armstrong is unlikely due to limited public access to the boggy area, so it is not expected to harm human health.

Cost analysis coming

Meanwhile, James Pinkney, a public affairs specialist with the EPA, said the agency hopes to finalize an engineering evaluation and cost analysis for the Armstrong site this fall. He said it will focus on the company’s wastewater treatment plant landfill, which is to be capped. The agency also hopes to start a remediation investigation and feasibility study for Armstrong in 2013.

Joe Neel III used to hunt with a friend, the late Ben Fitzpatrick, on Fitzpatrick’s land next to Armstrong. Neel has attended public meetings about the Armstrong Superfund cleanup. He said he also remembers flying over the area in the late 1950s when he was in the Air Force.

“It was Black Death where Tobosofkee (Creek) entered the Ocmulgee,” he recalled.

Neel said when Armstrong first opened in 1948, it used to cart liquid waste from its plant to the Ocmulgee River. Later, after getting access to city water, it rinsed liquid wastes into the swamp, he said.

He says he has been angry at the company for years because of the environmental damage he believed it did to the swamp.

Neel said he is concerned that the federal government will end up paying for the cleanup.

“My bull’s-eye is for Armstrong not to get a reward, financially or otherwise, for what they did to my friend’s property,” Neel said. “I watched him cry about this. ... I can’t lay his ghost to rest.”

Jennifer Johnson, Armstrong’s senior manager for corporate communication and public affairs, said in an e-mail last week, “I can’t even begin to address an allegation about what someone may have seen 60 years ago. What I can tell you is that the assertions are entirely inconsistent with how Armstrong has operated in Macon and everywhere else. Importantly, Armstrong is actively working today with the EPA on a plan of remediation for this site.”

Although Armstrong has the only Superfund site in Bibb County, a neighboring site is expected to be added to the list soon. The Allied Industrial Park, where naval ordnance was long manufactured, is next door to Armstrong and shared a landfill with it for several decades.

The Allied site, which is the source of a plume of trichloroethylene polluting the groundwater, was expected to be added to the Superfund list in September. But there were enough public comments arguing against that proposal that the designation has been delayed, probably until March or April, said Jennifer Wendel, National Priorities List coordinator for the EPA’s Southeast region. The EPA must respond to all the comments before making a final designation.

Unlike Armstrong, the Allied site has had many owners over the years, and potentially responsible parties are still being identified, Pinkney said. However, the U.S. Navy is known to be one of them, which means the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is likely to be held partly responsible for the cleanup there.

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