BY BRIAN JONES
COLUMBUS – The Greenfield Multistate Environmental Trust held a meeting Monday evening to brief residents about investigation and cleanup efforts at the former Kerr-McGee plant site.
The Greenfield Trust is overseeing the cleanup work and eventual rehabilitation of the site, which is located off of 14th Avenue North in Columbus. It began operations in the 1920s as a wood treatment plant. Creosote used in the treatment process was allowed to drip onto the ground, and flowed through open-air ditches that passed through nearby neighborhoods. There was also air pollution by toxic fumes from the treatment process.
The Environmental Protection Agency eventually designated the facility as a Superfund site. The trust has taken hundreds of soil and water samples from the site and the surrounding neighborhoods, and expects to continue cleanup and remediation efforts.
Multistate Trust Project Manager Lauri Gorton briefed the large crowd on the trust’s preliminary findings and fielded questions.
“We are a small private company,” she said. “We are not EPA contractors, and we do not work for the state. We are a court-appointed trustee, and our only job is to take the money that came out of the settlement agreement and own and manage the former Kerr-McGee site.”
She began by talking about the investigation work the trust has overseen since 2015.
“The trust took the property on in 2011,” she said. “When the trust was first started we only got a portion of the settlement, and the first few years there was very limited sampling done. Since 2015 we got full funding and got the full scope of the investigation kicked in. We want to understand the extent of the contamination from the Kerr-McGee property, and what types of contamination there are, and then evaluate whether there’s a risk to the people in what we’ve found. Lastly we use that information to plan the cleanup action.
“We looked at the plant and where the operations were and where we thought the worst contamination might be,” she said. “That gave us a starting point for our testing. We also held a couple of days’ worth of interviews with former employees of the plant and with residents to understand what they saw and get a feel for the history. We started with those original locations and if we found contamination we added additional spots for testing.”
Historical photos were a big help when it came to the plant site, she said.
“For example you can see black areas on the photos in the pine yards, as well as on the main plant site,” she said. “Those areas did turn out to be some of the more contaminated areas.”
Creosote tends to slowly seep into the ground, and can eventually get into the groundwater, she said.
“What happens over time is that as it rains and the water washes over creosote, it causes contamination to seep out of the creosote,” she said. “It drops down into the ground, and it ultimately gets into the groundwater and moves in the direction of the water. One of the other things that we know about it is that it sinks. Creosote is really heavy, if you drop it in water it will go right to the bottom. Over time it even sinks in the ground. There are parts of it that are going to drop through the soil, and ultimately will come to rest on the clay layer.”
The trust has done numerous soil bores both in the plant site and throughout the surrounding neighborhoods.
“It is very obvious when you run into creosote,” she said. “When we do those borings and we pull it up we get a pretty good picture of what’s underneath the surface. Similarly if you are boring at a place where there is no contamination, that’s pretty obvious, too.”
The city’s drinking water supply is not threatened, she said.
“The City of Columbus does have several wells that they use for drinking water,” she said. “We know the direction that the groundwater flowed from the pine yard, but it’s also important to understand that the city’s water wells go all the way down through 600-800 feet of clay. They take water out of a lower layer. There is no physical connection between where the city is taking its water and the water that has contamination on the Kerr-McGee site, and also the city regularly tests the water.”
In addition to the plant site and ditches, sampling was conducted on private and residential property, as well as within the city’s sewer lines and of tapwater, she said. There were two places where contamination was removed.
“For the most part the samples out in the neighborhood did not exceed screening levels,” she said.
About 295 samples were taken in the neighborhood around 14th Avenue North, she said.
“If we got a hit in a yard we went back and sampled in the adjacent yard to make sure we didn’t miss anything,” she said.
“There seem to be some discrepancies here,” said Pastor James Samuels, who was in the audience. “What you are saying to us is that the creosote and its constituents were trained to stay within the confines of (that plant).”
“Let me start with the training the contaminants,” Gorton said. “That was a good one, I never thought of it like that. The same activities did not occur on every square foot of the plant. Different things happened in different places. If there was a spray yard or something in a certain part of the site, that process didn’t take place everyplace. Training to stay in one place, of course not. What we find is that the worst contamination is concentrated in places where those operations went on and there was a lot of spills.
“One of the things that everybody said was that they would hang out laundry and the clothes would turn black,” she said. “There was stuff in the air that made the laundry black. That contamination was airborne and it would go quite a distance and land on the surface of the soil, but it also degrades with the sun and washes away over time. We tend not to see that (in surface soil samples), and we did do a lot of testing.”
[If I understood Ms. Gorton correctly, more testing is planned. – Ed.]
The trust re-sampled areas that Kerr-McGee had tested during its investigation, she said.
“We wanted to check the results that Kerr-McGee got because frankly we didn’t believe that they had necessarily done their job,” she said. “We did go back to the areas that they sampled and tried to make sure that they had done a thorough look. The former main process area is where a lot of the creosote was handled, and there were lot of samples taken in the main plant area and the southwest neighborhood.”
The city’s sewer system was tested, she said.
“There are people who had issues with black material coming up into their bathrooms and their sinks, and there was a concern that creosote had gotten into the sewer system,” she said. “We worked with Columbus Light and Water to put a camera into the sewer to take a look and see what was there and we also sampled manholes in sewer lines that went up the side of the streets. We did find that there was some creosote in pipe on 14th Avenue, but we did not find any in the manholes that were sampled. We are going to continue to work with CLW, we are looking at doing some kind of action.”
A Kerr-McGee pipe connected to the sewer line, she explained.
“When Kerr-McGee put their original treatment plant in there, they would treat their water and then they had a pipe that went straight to the 14th Avenue sewer,” she said. “A few years ago we dug that old pipe up, and it was full of creosote.”
Fourteen tapwater samples were performed, she said, including 13 residences and a church. No creosote was detected.
The trust is also working to develop plans to rehabilitate the site, she said.