Today's Paper News Sports Features Business Opinion LEARNS Guide Newsletters Obits Games Archive Notices Core Values

A years-long delay in testing for a hazardous chemical leaves federal regulators unsure of health impacts on Jacksonville residents

Chemical assessment proposed by EPA is years delayed by Will Langhorne | December 18, 2022 at 8:01 a.m.
The site of improper Vertac, Inc. waste disposal photographed Dec. 11, 2022 in Jacksonville. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

More than a decade after tightening exposure standards for dioxin, federal regulators have yet to reassess the potential health risks posed by the hazardous industrial byproduct to Jacksonville residents living near what was once among the worst Superfund sites in the nation.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a 2014 report said it would "immediately commence negotiations" needed to begin testing properties near the Vertac Inc. Superfund Site. But as of this month, the agency has yet to gather samples needed to evaluate the possible risk the chemical poses to residents living near the former herbicide plant.

The soil sampling is required for lots that may have been polluted by waste from the plant but did not meet a prior contamination threshold EPA used during a multimillion-dollar cleanup of the area completed in 1998, the agency said.

The dioxin from the facility originated as an unwanted byproduct in the production of Agent Orange and other herbicides. Companies that owned the plant improperly disposed of the dangerous chemical, leading to contamination of the area.

"It is currently unknown whether unacceptable exposure off-site exists. Sampling should focus on areas near residential homes and target areas of potential human contact," reads an EPA review of the site completed in 2014.

Officials said in the report that they planned to have the evaluation completed within five years.

But as of Dec. 7, the agency had yet to finalize its testing strategy for the properties. Federal officials anticipate the samples will be collected and analyzed next year, according to a statement provided by Joe Robledo, a spokesman for EPA Region 6, in response to questions from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

EPA Region 6 serves Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and 66 tribal nations.

Scientists outside of EPA who have studied the health effects of dioxin were surprised by the yearslong delay but said the setback was unlikely to have harmed residents.

EPA officials, however, could not provide a definitive response when asked if the agency had put human health and the environment at risk by failing to act immediately.

"(EPA) deferred a protective determination for portions of the site due to uncertainty with current conditions in those areas, therefore, it is not possible to predict the impact of the delay," said officials in a separate November statement provided by Robledo. "(EPA) is prioritizing the work and is committed to carrying out the sampling effort in order to protect human health and the environment."


When asked if EPA had publicized the need for more testing to locals, federal officials said the agency had published reports on its website. But Jacksonville residents living near the site were surprised by the news when contacted by the Democrat-Gazette.

Eric Neyland, who moved to the area three years ago, said he wasn't aware of the Superfund site near his home, let alone of EPA's plans for testing soil on private properties.

"That's a long time for it to be revised and for nothing to be done," he said of the agency's delay in collecting samples, during a Dec. 2 interview. "That's what the taxes go towards, to get s*** done like that, right?"

He suspected that most prospective home buyers would have liked to know about EPA's plans for testing soil in the area before setting down roots.

"It's probably not (a concern) now but what if in 20 years after consuming it for so long it turns into something, ... or your children, it affects them," said Neyland, who lives with his wife and three children.

Eddie Dickerson, a long-term Jacksonville resident, was not aware of the need for more soil sampling but said he wasn't concerned by any potential dioxin contamination. Dickerson, 82, said the Arkansas Department of Health selected him decades ago to serve as a subject in a study on the effects of dioxin. As part of the study, Dickerson said he received a detailed test for chemicals in his body.

"If what I have in my body, what they tested for, if it was really dangerous, I should have seen worse signs or problems with health," he said during a Dec. 2 interview in his home.

Catherine Roberts, who said she lived roughly three miles from the site, said no one had informed her of the need for followup testing.

"No, I hadn't heard. I thought it's all cleaned up," she said during an interview last month. "I wish that they'd tell the public.

The need for more testing also came as a surprise to Bobbie Burney, a Jacksonville resident who said she didn't live far from the former plant. During a November phone interview, Burney said she worked for Vertac and other owners of the chemical plant for 30 years doing "just about any job that came down the line."

One of Burney's duties was to monitor groundwater contamination at the site. After seeing how meticulous officials were when it came to sampling, Burney said it was a shock to hear of the years-long federal delay.

"I'm really surprised at this because they used to always be so careful to meet the requirements," she said.

Before EPA can gather soil samples on private land, the agency needs to gain permission from property owners. To accomplish this, EPA is coordinating with the City of Jacksonville and the Arkansas Division of Environmental Quality "to develop an effective approach to communicate with residents and collect the necessary data," said federal officials in Robledo's November statement.

Jacksonville Mayor Bob Johnson said in October that EPA had not given him a clear timeline for coming work at the site. When he spoke with agency officials earlier this year, Johnson said, they'd told him "they'd get" to him later.

During a Dec. 1 interview, Johnson said EPA officials had since provided him with little more than a copy of their responses to questions submitted by the Democrat-Gazette.

While Johnson was unsure of how officials planned to get permission from property owners for the sampling, he said he'd like to see coordination between the environmental regulators and the city.

Johnson said was not concerned by the current state of the site.

He pointed to Jacksonville's redevelopment of the area as a marker of the site's successful remediation. The city has acquired the northern portion of the property and built a recycling center, a fire department training facility and other municipal buildings on the lot.


The Vertac, Inc., Superfund site in Jacksonville was once considered among the worst hazardous waste sites in the nation.

While under remediation in 1990 the site ranked 18th on the federal government's roster of more than 1,000 hazardous waste sites, according to an article published at the time by the Arkansas Democrat.

Beginning in 1948, a series of companies produced herbicides and buried toxic waste on the 193-acre property. Environmental regulators later discovered waste chemicals from the plant, including dioxin, seeped into groundwater reservoirs and polluted local waterways.

By the early 1980s, the EPA had begun studying and proposing clean-up solutions for the site and surrounding areas. The remediation work ultimately included incinerating roughly 10,000 cubic yards of highly contaminated waste and disposing of about 45,000 cubic yards of debris and contaminated soil, according to EPA documentation.

When the project officially ended in 1998, the Democrat-Gazette reported the work cost an estimated $150 million.

For the next 14 years, the EPA continued to monitor the site. Then in 2012, EPA issued a nationwide toxicity reassessment for dioxin following a review of the latest scientific studies on the chemical. The evaluation set a stricter exposure standard for the contaminant and triggered a reassessment of dioxin-contaminated Superfund sites, including seven in Arkansas.

At some sites in Arkansas and elsewhere, the agency determined prior testing was enough to ensure cleanups were still protective of human health. But at other locations, EPA officials found they needed more data.

In Arkansas, the EPA has evaluated samples from the Arkwood, Inc. Superfund Site near Omaha and the Old Midland Products Superfund Site near Ola. The EPA has scheduled testing at the Ouachita-Nevada Wood Treater site in Ouachita County for the spring of 2023, officials said in a statement from Robledo.

Sampling at the Arkwood Inc. site cast doubt on whether a prior cleanup would still be protective if the inactive facility were to reopen for industrial use. Testing at Old Midland Products found dioxin levels that would pose "unacceptable" risks to children if the site were redeveloped for residential use, according to EPA reports.

EPA said it was unable to sample soils at the Vertac, Inc. site within five years of its 2014 report because of trouble coordinating between state, local and community groups. A November statement from the agency described the situation as involving "complex technical, legal, and community engagement issues."

"(EPA) is committed to coming to closure on these issues in order to collect the data," officials said.

The state Division of Environmental Quality assists EPA with document reviews and accompanies federal officials on site evaluations and community outreach efforts. While EPA seeks input from state officials, the federal agency made the final decisions on which Superfund sites in Arkansas were sampled first.

At the Vertac site, the state agency will review EPA's final sampling strategy "for protection of human health and the environment and minimal disruption to the Jacksonville community," according to a Dec. 12 statement provided by Beth Thompson, spokeswoman for the division.

Data collected by the EPA at the Jacksonville site in the 1980s show samples with dioxin concentrations below the cleanup threshold at the time but above the new risk assessment level.

During Vertac's original cleanup, the agency remediated residential and agricultural sites with dioxin concentrations above one part per billion. The threshold concentration for industrial areas was five parts per billion.

Now, risk-based screening levels for residential areas are almost 20 times more stringent.

The new guidelines would prompt EPA to conduct further analysis for -- but not necessarily clean up -- any sites with dioxin concentrations above 51 parts per trillion for residential areas and 720 parts per trillion for commercial and industrial sites.

EPA officials said it was difficult to predict current levels of dioxin based on the sampling data collected in the 1980s. In its coming rounds of testing, the agency plans to use new methods with lower detection limits.

The agency was still working on its final strategy for the site, which will inform how officials will address any properties where samples show dioxin concentrations above the new risk-based screening levels, according to a statement from Robledo.


While dioxin is generally regarded as a highly toxic chemical, scientists disagree on the dangers the compound poses to humans.

Both the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the U.S. National Toxicology Program have identified dioxin, or 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin, as a known human carcinogen. But not all researchers agree with this classification, said Norbert Kaminski, director of the Institute for Integrative Toxicology at the University of Michigan.

"There is a lot of controversy around whether dioxin is in fact a human carcinogen," said Kaminski, who has studied the effects of dioxin and dioxin-like compounds on the immune system.

Determining the concentrations at which dioxin may be dangerous to humans has proven challenging for scientists due to research gaps and controversy surrounding Agent Orange, said Kaminski.

"I've served on two national academy committees trying to evaluate some of these issues and it is a very difficult thing to do," he said.

Still, he said dioxin can affect multiple organs and increase a person's susceptibility to infection. Research has linked dioxin to the impairment of reproductive functions, though Kaminiski said he has yet to see studies that definitively demonstrate these effects in humans. The most visible indicator of dioxin exposure is chloracne, a skin condition marked by outbreaks of blackheads, cysts and nodules.

"The overwhelming thing is that we all recognize -- even if you're on one side or the other -- (dioxin) is a bad compound," said Stephen Safe, a professor of toxicology at the University of Texas A&M. "It shouldn't be out there, and if it is out there in sufficient concentrations, clean the darn stuff up."

Neither Kaminiski nor Safe expected that the EPA's delay would put Jacksonville residents in danger. Kaminiski noted that the cost of the sampling could have kept the agency from quickly gathering and analyzing the data.

"The analytical methods to do these determinations are very expensive," he said.

The EPA was unable to provide an estimate for the cost of the sampling at the Vertac site. The federal government spent about $29,000 on dioxin sampling at the Old Midland Products Superfund Site. The EPA funded the sampling through an agreement with the U.S. Geological Survey since there was no viable potentially responsible party for this site, officials said in a statement provided by Robledo.

Testing for dioxin at the Arkwood, Inc. Superfund Site was led by the McKesson Corporation, which EPA officials said has declined to release the cost of the testing. David Matthews, a spokesman for the corporation, did not respond to an email request from the Democrat-Gazette.

The agency expects Hercules Inc., one of the companies that operated the former herbicide plant, to bear the expense of the testing at the Vertac site, EPA officials said.

Hercules has retained an environmental consultant and an independent Arkansas-certified testing laboratory to collect and evaluate the samples. Like EPA, Hercules acknowledged in a statement that the work involved "complex technical issues" -- including the analysis of decades-old data and activities -- and required coordination with state and federal officials.

"Hercules remains committed and will continue to work collaboratively with EPA, ADEQ and community stakeholders at the Vertac Site," said Timothy Hassett, Hercules remediation project manager, in the Dec. 13 statement.

Despite costs and other factors that might have delayed the testing, Kaminiski said he was surprised it took the EPA so long to react.

"If they're required to do this, they should do it," he said. "We pay a lot of taxes and we expect the government to fulfill their obligations."

Safe likewise said he would have expected the agency to have acted sooner.

"If levels are set by EPA, and now it's above the level -- even if I don't think it's a huge health hazard -- don't set levels lower unless you're willing to clean it up," he said.

Print Headline: Jacksonville soil testing not begun


Sponsor Content