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Cleanup funds possible for south Macon industrial properties

New test results for contamination on south Macon industrial properties show enough pollution to make them contenders for the Superfund list, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

These properties include Armstrong World Industries and two sites where a naval ordnance factory and associated landfill were once located.

The factory was operated by the Navy during World War II and by defense contractors for decades afterward, before a seat-belt company called Allied Chemical Corp. gave part of the property its current name. The land is now owned by the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority, the Macon Water Authority and about 20 private businesses in the Allied Industrial Park.

The National Priority List, commonly called the Superfund list, designates properties as among the dirtiest in the nation. Inclusion makes them eligible for millions of dollars in federal hazardous waste cleanup funds, but it also means polluters will be pursued for payment, too.

The extensive new testing in the area off Guy Paine Road was the first step in determining whether to propose adding the sites to the Superfund list, said Jennifer Wendel, an EPA remedial project manager.

Reports summarizing the recent test results for the EPA indicate that the former naval ordnance site and Armstrong basically shared a landfill from 1975 to 1988. A fence later was erected along the property line.

These combined landfills were believed to be the source of all the pollution, which includes heavy metals, organic chemicals, pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Most of these can cause cancer or other health problems.

But the new test results show even higher PCB levels coming from landfills farther away on the Armstrong property. The highest concentrations were found in a ditch that flows to Rocky Creek, where Armstrong once had a permit to release liquid waste, Wendel said.

She said PCBs previously found in samples at the old naval ordnance landfill could have washed there from the ditch, which is frequently flooded by the nearby swamp.

PCBs are carcinogens that travel up the food chain and remain stored in living tissue. Rocky Creek has high enough PCB levels that the state has warned people against fishing there, although it remains a popular fishing spot.

“I was actually surprised we found that high of PCBs at the (Armstrong) landfill,” Wendel said. “I think we’ve got enough evidence now ... We’ve found the source of at least the major PCBs in Rocky Creek at Armstrong, so we’re moving forward.”

Armstrong, which makes ceiling tiles at its Macon plant, used to manufacture tiles with PCB formulations. The company has said these tiles were not made or recycled in Macon.

DIFFERENT FINDINGS

A report filed Sept. 29 by EPA contractor TetraTech, which conducted the testing in Macon this spring, said that Armstrong officials attribute the PCBs to dyes present in recycled raw materials and recycled newsprint.

Armstrong representatives said this week that they had seen the EPA results. The company tested samples taken at the same times and locations as the EPA and reached different conclusions, said Glen Hawkins, who is in charge of environmental health and safety for the Macon plant.

Hawkins said only five of 38 samples taken by Armstrong showed PCB levels that were elevated (meaning they were three times more than background levels for the area). He said the EPA’s conclusions might have relied on some inaccurate information about water flows.

EPA and EPD documents show that in 2006 the state Environmental Protection Division tried to get Armstrong to conduct wider testing on its property. But Armstrong, which was contemplating bankruptcy, would not agree, said Mark Smith, chief of EPD’s hazardous waste management branch. At that point, EPD officials decided to ask the federal EPA to step in, especially since the exact sources of the different pollution remained unclear, Smith said.

The most recent tests at Armstrong dealt only with PCBs and did not include groundwater testing. Wendel said if the sites attain Superfund listing, the Armstrong property will be tested for more pollutants.

Test results have not yet been reported to the industrial authority, but Wendel said she hopes to present them at an upcoming authority meeting.

Test results showed nothing that requires quick action, Wendel said. No drinking water is taken from the contaminated area, and the portions with some of the highest concentrations of pollution are in ditches or inaccessible wetlands.

In some good news, the tests found no elements used to make explosives, Wendel said.

The new conclusions regarding Armstrong’s role have led to a renewed commitment by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to clean up the trichloroethylene and other contamination coming from the former naval ordnance landfill, Wendel said.

The corps is responsible for cleanups of former defense sites, but it had stopped work on the Macon cleanup because of concerns the military was being held responsible for PCB contamination it didn’t cause.

In an e-mail, Billy Birdwell with the corps’ district in Savannah said the corps plans to complete a summary of the land’s historical uses, including potential sources of the trichloroethylene contamination, by the end of September 2010. Then the corps will pursue a cleanup agreement with any other landowners who might have been partially responsible.

EPA has agreed to take the lead working with Armstrong on the PCBs, he said.

Information from The Telegraph’s archives was used in this report.

To reach writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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