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Bibb sites could land on Superfund list

With an eye to forcing any past polluters to pay for cleanup, environmental regulators plan to evaluate whether two Bibb County properties should be added to a federal list of the dirtiest sites in America.

The former Macon Naval Ordnance Landfill and neighboring Allied Industrial Park on Guy Paine Road could become eligible for millions of dollars in federal cleanup money if they are added to the National Priority List, commonly known as the Superfund list.

But the Superfund process also involves investigating who is responsible for the contamination and pursuing them to pay for the cleanup first — with the ability to sue for the cost if they refuse, said Don Rigger, Superfund branch chief for the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Southeast region.

Among the potential polluters are the Department of Defense, which operated a naval ordnance plant at the site, and Armstrong World Industries Inc., EPA officials said Wednesday.

EPA and Environmental Protection Division representatives reported on their investigation to the properties committee of the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority. The EPA is proposing to conduct water, soil and water-borne sediment samples on the land this spring to produce a snapshot of the pollution within five or six months.

Regulators asked for help with access to the properties, which are owned by the Industrial Authority, the Macon Water Authority, and about 20 private businesses in the Allied Industrial Park.

The landfill and Allied sites were once one, all part of the naval ordnance plant operation run by the Navy during World War II and by defense contractors for decades afterward. Later, a seat belt company named Allied Chemical Corp. gave the property its current moniker.

But that landfill is also right next to an Armstrong landfill where cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have been found, Carolyn Callihan, EPA remedial project manager for the Superfund division, said.

“The state has also asked the EPA to evaluate Armstrong,” Callihan said. “They dealt with ceiling tiles that had PCB formulations.”

Fish in Rocky Creek, which flows very near both landfills, are contaminated with PCBs, which can travel up the food chain and be stored in the tissue of people who eat the fish.

Armstrong officials have said the company merely recycled the tile in Macon, she said. But EPA officials are researching this and other historical uses of the properties.

In an e-mail, Beth Riley, Armstrong’s vice president for communications, said the company is aware of the high PCB levels nearby. “Armstrong never used PCBs in its manufacturing process at the Macon plant,” she stated.

Heavy rains and floods in the last few decades have eroded soil at the landfills, Callihan said. She showed photos of corroding metal drums lying in pools of water at the landfills.

An enormous trichloroethene plume is also spreading in groundwater beneath the naval ordnance and Allied sites. TCE contamination is steadily increasing in the large wetland south of the industrial areas, Callihan said.

Dirt at the sites also contains elevated levels of other cancer-causing pollutants such as heavy metals.

Superfund cleanups usually involve either removing vast amounts of contaminated soil, or finding a way to contain the pollutants and monitor the results for many years.

ALMOST ADDED IN 2002

This is the second time this decade the two sites have been considered for Superfund status. The EPA was on the cusp of adding both properties to the Superfund list in 2002 after a study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for Department of Defense cleanups, recommended quick action due to health risks from the contamination.

But in 2003, the EPA decided instead to place the sites on a secondary list, with the understanding that the corps would handle the cleanup, EPA spokeswoman Laura Niles said.

In 2005, the corps had ranked the two properties together as the highest priority cleanup of hazardous, toxic and radiological waste among former defense sites in Georgia.

The corps went on to start injecting a chemical solution into groundwater at the Allied site to break down the TCE into harmless compounds. Callihan said the corps’ pilot study basically showed this method wasn’t working.

At about this time in 2005, the cleanup was abandoned, said Billy Birdwell, communications director for the corps’ Savannah district.

That’s because the corps discovered historical and property records indicating another party might be responsible for the pollution, Birdwell said. If someone else could be the perpetrator, the law requires the corps to stop work until it’s clear that the Department of Defense did the damage, he said.

The corps has since hired a contractor to conduct further research. Birdwell said he was not sure when that started, and there is no estimated completion date, he said.

With the cleanup halted, the state EPD asked the EPA in 2007 to reconsider the properties for Superfund status, Niles said.

Kevin Brown, attorney for the industrial authority, asked why representatives of the corps, which he called “an admitted perp,” did not attend the meeting.

“In the past, the Department of Defense has been less than cooperative,” he said. “They said, ‘We’ll do it, but we’ll do it when we want to, how we want to.’ ”

Rigger said he understood that the corps had trouble getting funding for the cleanup, but that might change if the EPA and EPD step up their efforts, as they are now.

Smith, with the EPD, told the industrial authority Wednesday, “We have reached a sort of an impasse with the corps, hearing a sort of ‘this is not my problem.’ This sampling may clear that up.”

Even if the sites are added to the Superfund list, there’s no guarantee that funding would come soon. The Superfund program was largely defunded in the 1990s, and all the projects on the list must compete with each other for the available dollars.

In fiscal year 2008, nearly 57 percent of Superfund obligations for construction and postconstruction activities went to just 17 sites, according to the EPA’s Web site.

However, it’s possible some funding from the federal stimulus passed Tuesday could go to Superfund, Niles said.

There are 18 Superfund sites in Georgia, including Robins Air Force Base and the former Woolfolk chemical site in Fort Valley, Niles said.

In the meantime, Macon Mayor Robert Reichert asked, “What future restrictions would you suggest for the property, other than disclosure? Should we put crime scene tape around the whole place?”

Smith and Rigger said its use as an industrial park is ideal. “If somebody were talking about residential, we’d have a problem with that,” Rigger said. But he cautioned the authority that as long as the contamination remains, a Superfund designation will only help remove the stigma, not add to it. “We’re here to remove that cloud the only way we can, and that’s cleaning up the site,” he said

Information from The Telegraph’s archives was included in this report To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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