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Contractors scheduled to gather soil samples from residential properties in Jacksonville in search of dioxin

‘Complex’ issues said to have delayed residential dioxin reassessment until now by Will Langhorne | May 14, 2023 at 7:36 a.m.
The site of improper Vertac, Inc. waste disposal photographed Dec. 11, 2022 in Jacksonville..(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff).

Contractors are scheduled to begin gathering soil samples Tuesday from residential properties near the Vertac Inc. Superfund Site in Jacksonville as part of a reassessment of the potential health risks posed to locals by dioxin, a hazardous industrial byproduct once manufactured at the site.

Federal officials anticipate contractors will gather soil from roughly 30 properties immediately south and east of the former herbicide plant, though this number is subject to change, said Joe Robledo, a spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in a written response to questions from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Tuesday.

EPA officials began seeking access to properties in January. As of Tuesday, the agency had received access consent forms from 32 of 35 property owners.

"Every property owner we were able to contact granted access to EPA," Robledo said. "However, EPA was not able to reach some property owners and thus was unable to secure consent to access."

Sampling near the 193-acre Superfund site is expected to continue through May 23.

Hercules, a company that under previous ownership once operated the plant, is responsible for covering the costs of the work.

Timothy Hassett, remediation project manager, said Hercules does not share cost information outside of the company. Hercules has retained EHS Support as an independent consultant to prepare sampling documents and collect samples, Hassett said in a written statement Friday.

The sampling work comes more than a decade after federal officials tightened exposure standards for dioxin as a result of a review of the latest scientific research on the chemical.

In a 2014 report, EPA officials said the agency would "immediately commence negotiations" needed to begin testing properties near the Vertac site and set a goal to have the evaluation complete within five years. But sampling was delayed, officials said last year, because of "complex technical, legal, and community engagement issues."

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

The yearslong federal remediation, which drew national attention in the 1980s and 1990s, began after a series of companies, including Vertac Inc., buried toxic waste on the site. Environmental regulators discovered that dioxin -- which originated as an unwanted byproduct in the production of Agent Orange and other herbicides -- seeped into local waterways.

The remediation work, which cost an estimated $150 million, included the incineration of roughly 10,000 cubic yards of highly contaminated waste and the disposal of about 45,000 cubic yards of debris and contaminated soil, according to EPA documentation.

Scientists outside of EPA who have studied the health effects of dioxin told the Democrat-Gazette last year the delay in collecting samples is unlikely to have harmed residents.

EPA officials have indicated that sampling will have to be completed before the agency can determine if there is any risk to human health or the environment.

If dioxin concentrations in the samples gathered in the coming days exceed federal screen levels, EPA may need to conduct an additional assessment in early 2024 of those areas before determining if remedial action is necessary, Robledo said Tuesday.

Areas selected for sampling are among those most likely to have been affected by surface water runoff or air contamination. Officials also used historic sampling data to determine which properties should be tested, Robledo said.

Beth Hall, a Jacksonville resident who lives near the site, said people who identified themselves as EPA officials had informed her there were plans to conduct testing in the area.

"I kind of went, 'Oh really,'" she said Thursday. "I don't want to have another Camp Lejeune."

Jacksonville Mayor Jeff Elmore said that while the city does not have an active role in the sampling process, EPA has informed local officials of which properties where they intend to gather samples.

Elmore, who was elected last year, said federal officials routinely inspect the Superfund site.

"No one's going to be in a hazmat suit," he said of the sampling work.

Elmore noted, however, the work marks the first time he was aware of the agency gathering samples on properties that were not included in the earlier cleanup.

"We are kind anxious ourselves to hear what they have to say," he said during an interview Wednesday.

Since EPA officials began requesting access to properties, Elmore said he had not heard from a single homeowner.

"It's been incredibly quiet," he said. "After so many years of this taking place and so forth, a lot of people don't give it a lot of thought or mind because we were declared clean ... we have moved forward in improving our town and are glad to have this in our review mirror."

The Arkansas Division of Environmental Quality provided input for the final sampling plan. The state agency along with EPA "worked closely with the City of Jacksonville to involve and inform the Jacksonville community," said Carol Booth, chief of communications for the Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment, in a written statement Thursday.

Up to five samples will be taken from every "decision unit." These units typically include one property, Robledo said.

The sampling work is not expected to cause any disruptions for property owners. Contractors will not gather samples from inside homes or other buildings. In addition to sampling private properties, contractors may gather samples from public right of ways owned or controlled by the city of Jacksonville, Robledo said in response to questions.

During the original cleanup, EPA 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.

EHS Support will send the soil samples it gathers directly to Vista Analytical Laboratory, a state-certified environmental lab. Vista Analytical Laboratory will analyze the samples and report the results to EHS Support and send a copy to Hercules. EHS Support will then evaluate the analytical results and summarize the data for EPA and involved stakeholders, said Hassett.

EPA expects it will take around 60 days for samples to be processed. The agency anticipates residents will be notified of the results 90 days after the sampling, Robledo said.

Print Headline: Sampling of soil around Vertac site finally will begin


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