Progress comes slowly at site of defunct Arkansas chemical plant; pollutants linger in flood-risk zone

Helena-West Helena Mayor Jay Hollowell is shown in this file photo.
Helena-West Helena Mayor Jay Hollowell is shown in this file photo.

Some officials in Phillips County say they aren’t concerned about incomplete cleanup of a chemical site in Helena-West Helena that is located in a flood-risk zone.

About 900 people live within a mile of the defunct Cedar Chemical plant on the west side of the city, according to an Associated Press analysis of flood zone maps, census data and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records.

Soil and groundwater at the site are contaminated with arsenic and dozens of other substances that pose human and environmental health risks, according to 2017 testing conducted by a contractor.

Nationwide, nearly 2 million people live within a mile of 327 Superfund sites in areas prone to flooding or vulnerable to sea-level rise caused by climate change, the analysis shows. They are in largely low-income neighborhoods heavily populated by members of minority groups, the data show.

Superfund sites are on the EPA’s list of most polluted places and are designated for cleanup overseen by the agency.

Arkansas has five Superfund sites located in flood-risk zones, but remedial action plans for four of those sites have already been completed. Those are in Edmondson, Newport, West Memphis and Jacksonville, within a mile of about 4,200 Arkansans.

Cedar Chemical, located off U.S. 49 in the Helena-West Helena Industrial Park, was designated a Superfund site in 2012 after years of requests for its remediation. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality sued three previous operators — Wormald USA, Helena Chemical Co. and Exxon Mobil Chemical Co. — over “severe and persistent contamination” and a threat to the alluvial aquifer, but it dropped the suit after being assured the site would be cleaned up. The alluvial aquifer provides the city’s drinking water. An area farmer also sued.

The EPA did not answer a question from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about the risks the site poses in the event of a flood, but officials said they did not know of any effects on the city’s water supply.

Jack Ross, director of Helena-West Helena Water, said the utility doesn’t have any wells within 5 miles of the industrial park and that the city hasn’t seen a migration of the site’s contaminants into the drinking water system during flood events.

Mayor Jay Hollowell, 60, said he’s never known the industrial park area to flood. He’s optimistic about cleanup efforts, which he called a “best-case scenario” with the involvement of the EPA. He said he learned the site was a Superfund site for the first time in the fall, when the EPA visited.

“So I see it as a positive that we’ve got a problem that’s being addressed,” he said.

Helena Chemical began operating the industrial facility in 1970 and produced Dinoseb, an herbicide.

From 1970-2002, various owners operated the site, which generally manufactured agricultural and organic chemicals. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality has acted as the facility’s caretaker since Cedar Chemical closed it in 2002. In 2012, the department estimated the cost of cleanup to be $37 million, which was four times what the department had available to spend on it.

In March 2016, the EPA and the companies that have operated on the Cedar Chemical property entered a settlement agreement and order for consent for remedial investigation/feasibility study. The Cedar Chemical site is so-called for the last company to operate there, but others that signed the agreement were BASF Corp., Goodrich Corp., Bayer CropScience Inc., Syngenta Crop Protection, Exxon Mobil, Helena Chemical Co., FMC Corp., Solvay USA, E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co., and Chevron USA.

The EPA identifies three potential responsible parties in charge of the cleanup: Tyco Safety Products-Ansul Inc.; Helena Chemical Co.; and Exxon Mobil Chemical Co. Officials at Helena Chemical Co. and Exxon Mobil did not respond to messages left for them Friday.

The settlement noted 15 hazardous substances detected above risk criteria in the soil and 31 more in the groundwater. It also described barrels of concern and conditions at the site as constituting “an actual and/or threatened ‘release’ of a hazardous substance from the facility.”

In August, the parties submitted to the EPA their final work plan for cleaning up the site. The proposal was compiled and sent to the EPA by GSI Environmental of Austin, Texas. The 517-page document stipulates sampling at the site, assessments of the risk the site poses to human health and studies of the feasibility and suitability of possible remedies.

GSI will oversee the work and coordinate with the EPA, the Department of Environmental Quality, current tenant Quapaw Products and the companies that signed the settlement agreement.

The EPA tested soil and groundwater samples in February. The samples indicated levels of numerous chemicals and compounds above ecological screening criteria: volatile organic compounds, semi-volatile organic compounds, pesticides, herbicides, and metals.

One of the more common substances found was arsenic. It was detected above both human health and ecological screening criteria once in soil, and above both the maximum contaminant level and either the tap water or groundwater screening level 22 times. It met the human health criteria but was detected above ecological screening levels numerous other times.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that is also a carcinogen, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Forms of it are used in industrial activities and as pesticides. Exposure to arsenic can affect skin, the liver and the digestive, nervous and respiratory systems.

Ethylene dichloride tested above both the maximum contaminant level and either the tap water or groundwater screening level 19 times. Exposure to ethylene dichloride, which is not found naturally in the environment, can affect liver and kidney function, according to the registry. The National Toxicology Program says it is “reasonably anticipated” to be a human carcinogen.

This year’s historic hurricane season exposed a little-known public health threat: highly polluted sites that can be inundated by floodwaters, potentially spreading toxic contamination.

In Houston, more than a dozen Superfund sites were flooded by Hurricane Harvey, with breaches reported at two. In the Southeast and in Puerto Rico, Superfund sites were battered by driving rains and winds from hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Many of the 327 sites have had at least some work done to help mitigate the threat to public health, including fencing them off and covering them in plastic sheeting to help keep rainwater out.

The administration of former President Barack Obama assessed some of the at-risk places and planned to gird them from harsher weather and rising seas. The EPA’s 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Plan said prolonged flooding at low-lying Superfund sites could cause extensive erosion, carrying away contaminants as waters recede.

President Donald Trump, however, has called climate change a hoax, and his administration has worked to remove references from federal reports and websites linking carbon emissions to the warming planet.

“Site managers had started reviewing climate and environmental trends for each Superfund site, including the potential for flooding,” said Phyllis Anderson, who worked for 30 years as an EPA attorney and associate director of the division that manages Superfund cleanups until her retirement in 2013. “The current administration appears to be trying to erase these efforts in their climate change denials, which is a shame.”

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has said he intends to focus on cleaning up Superfund sites, and he appointed a task force that developed a list of sites considered the highest priority. The Cedar Chemical site is not on that list.

Pruitt also rejects the consensus of climate scientists that man-made carbon emissions are driving global warming. His task force’s 34-page report makes no mention of the flood risk to Superfund sites from stronger storms or rising seas, but eight of the 21 sites on the EPA’s priority list are in areas of flood risk.

Despite the EPA’s emphasis on expediting cleanups, the Trump administration’s proposed spending plan for the current 2018 fiscal year seeks to slash Superfund program funding by nearly a third. Congress hasn’t yet approved new spending plans for the fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.

Pruitt’s office declined to comment on the key findings of the AP’s analysis or why the agency appears to no longer recognize an increasing flood risk to toxic sites posed by the changing climate.

Many flood-prone Superfund sites identified through the AP’s analysis are located in low-lying, densely populated urban areas. In New Jersey, several polluted sites have more than 50,000 people living within a mile.

In Hoboken, across the Hudson River from New York City, the site of a former manufacturing plant for mercury vapor lamps sits within a mile of almost 100,000 residents, including 7,000 children younger than 5.

Across the nation, more than 800,000 homes are located near flood-prone toxic sites. Houses are at risk of contamination if intense flooding takes water into them, and many more people could be affected if the contamination seeps into the ground, finding its way into drinking water.

Mustafa Ali, who resigned in March as the EPA’s senior adviser and assistant associate administrator for environmental justice, said it’s no accident that many of the nation’s most polluted sites are located in some of the poorest neighborhoods.

“We place the things that are most dangerous in sacrifice zones, which in many instances are communities of color where we haven’t placed as much value on their lives,” said Ali, who worked at the EPA for 24 years.

In October, the EPA said dioxins from the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund site near Houston were released after the cap was damaged by Harvey-related flooding. Tests afterward measured the toxins at 2,300 times the level that would normally trigger a new cleanup.

Pruitt has since ordered an accelerated cleanup of the site.

Information for this article was contributed by Jason Dearen, Michael Biesecker and Angeliki Kastanis of The Associated Press.

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