The federal Environmental Protection Agency has proposed adding a prominent Bibb County industrial property to the list of the most polluted hazardous waste sites in the nation.
Under the proposal, which is open for a 60-day comment period, the EPA would add the Armstrong World Industries site to the National Priority List, also called the Superfund list. The site consists of two landfills, as well as the drainage pathways between the landfills and Rocky Creek, said Jennifer Wendel, who coordinates the National Priorities List for the EPA’s Southeast region.
If no negative comments are received, Armstrong will likely be finalized as a Superfund site in March, Wendel said. It would become just the third in Middle Georgia, joining Robins Air Force Base and the former Woolfolk Chemical site in Fort Valley.
Armstrong began manufacturing ceiling tiles at its plant on Broadway in 1948. The two pollution sources are a former Armstrong landfill for sludge from its old wastewater treatment plant, as well as a second landfill that was essentially shared by Armstrong and a World War II-era naval ordnance plant.
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Designation as a Superfund site opens access to millions of dollars in new federal funding and allows the EPA to require the responsible parties — in this case, possibly including Armstrong and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which cleans up contaminated defense sites — to pay for cleanup.
Properties are recommended for the Superfund list using various methods. The Armstrong site is being recommended based on its numeric ranking on EPA’s hazard ranking system. Because of the toxicity of polychlorinated biphenyls — PCBs — and their effect on Rocky Creek fishing, which brings them into the human food chain, the site received a score of 50 out of 100. Wendel said sites are eligible for Superfund listing if they score higher than 28.5 in the ranking system.
Even if Armstrong becomes a Superfund site, it may take years for the cleanup to make headway. The earliest portion of the investigations needed to determine the best way to handle the site are expected to begin in spring, but some of the investigation steps alone could take several years, Wendel said.
For the better part of the past 15 years, federal investigation of the contamination focused on the combined landfill as the source of all the pollution contaminating nearby Rocky Creek, including heavy metals, organic chemicals, pesticides and PCBs. Most of these can cause cancer or other health problems, and Rocky Creek is considered unsafe for fishing because of PCB contamination.
But further tests by the EPA in the last few years revealed that large concentrations of PCBs also were coming from the Armstrong waste water treatment landfill.
The Armstrong landfill
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.
Wendel said that after the EPA completed broader testing last year, Armstrong acknowledged that PCBs were coming from the former wastewater treatment plant landfill site, and it volunteered to pay to further investigate the contamination.
Glen Hawkins, the environmental health and safety manager for the Macon Armstrong plant, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The EPA and Armstrong signed an administrative consent order at the end of September, agreeing to spend an estimated $450,000 on a contractor who will conduct the investigation and recommend the best way to address the contamination at the site, in ditches and in Rocky Creek.
The EPA will approve the contractor and, when the study is complete, invite public comment on cleanup options, Wendel said. “Hopefully, they will complete the investigation phase within a year,” she said.
At that point, negotiations with Armstrong would resume over the actual cleanup, Wendel said.
The combined landfill and groundwater
The Macon Water Authority now owns the former Naval Ordnance Landfill site due to a land swap the utility did years ago at the request of the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority.
“As long as they don’t expect to hold us responsible, we’re glad they put it on the list and intend to clean it up,” authority Director Tony Rojas said.
Wendel said the authority would not be asked to cover cleaning up contamination it didn’t cause.
The corps has sporadically tested cleanup methods for the former Naval Ordnance Landfill but has resisted a full cleanup.
The corps conducted its own survey of historical documents and believes two other parties also are responsible for the contamination in the area, particularly groundwater contamination at the Allied Industrial Park to the north, Wendel said. But the agency refuses to release the survey findings.
The EPA is now conducting its own historical survey, and several more companies or former property owners may be involved, Wendel said.
Billy Birdwell, public affairs chief for the corps district in Savannah, said he could not answer further questions about the corps’ future involvement in any cleanup in the area.
“I’m not sure exactly what the corps’ involvement is going to be on the combined landfill, whether they’ll decide to join us as an active party or let Armstrong take the lead and have a settlement with them,” Wendel said. She added that EPA can use other enforcement powers to hold the Navy responsible if necessary.
The Allied Industrial Park, which was for years grouped with the Naval Ordnance Landfill as the state examined contamination there, is not included in the Superfund proposal.
That’s because Armstrong is not believed at all responsible for the groundwater contamination there, Wendel said.
Allied could eventually be proposed for its own Superfund listing if responsible parties don’t cooperate on the cleanup, she said.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.