Eyesore in St. Louis will be tough cleanup task

Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 12, 2011
Posted on: http://envfpn.advisen.com

When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency authorized the cleanup of the Carter Carburetor plant in north St. Louis earlier this year, it was supposed to mark the beginning of the end for the industrial eyesore staining part of North Grand Boulevard.

But a quarter-century after contamination was first suspected at the site near old Sportsman’s Park, there are still years of work ahead and significant hurdles to overcome before the neighborhood is rid of its toxic legacy.

The EPA must get commitments to pay for the $27 million cleanup. The technology chosen to extract contaminants from underground must still be proven effective before the work actually begins. And additional testing has been conducted in the surrounding neighborhood to determine whether it has been fouled by pollutants that migrated off the site.

What’s more, the EPA still can’t convince some north St. Louis residents that it’s serious about ridding the neighborhood of a blight and hazard that won’t seem to go away.

“If this was any other community except the North Side, this would have been removed years ago,” said Romona Taylor Williams, a north St. Louis resident and activist.

Not everyone in the area feels the same. But the EPA is sensitive to any suggestion that cleanup efforts have been allowed to drag on, particularly because the administration of President Barack Obama has sought to make environmental justice a priority.

Local EPA officials cite a neighborhood testing program conducted last week as an example of their responsiveness. The EPA wasn’t planning further tests for contamination in the area. But it agreed to do so at the urging of residents.

Soil, sediment and vapor samples were collected last week from multiple locations within a one-block radius of the site, EPA spokesman Chris Whitley said.

Helen Bailey, a 45-year resident of the neighborhood, lives just a block outside the area being tested. She’s eager for the results and for cleanup work to begin. “We’ve been dealing with this site for years,” she said during a recent meeting hosted by the EPA at the Herbert Hoover Boys & Girls Club.

The tests are looking for contamination from cancer-causing PCBs that may have been scattered by the wind. PCBs are toxic compounds linked to a wide range of health effects. They were left behind by hydraulic fluid that was used in die cast machines at the carburetor plant, and from oil in electric transformers kept on site by a subsequent owner.

Tests of vapor samples are looking for signs of trichloroethylene, or TCE, an industrial solvent used to clean and degrease carburetor components that may have migrated via groundwater to the surrounding neighborhood. Long-term exposure to high levels of TCE vapors can affect the central nervous system and has caused liver and kidney damage in laboratory animals.

Previous investigations showed that TCE pollution reached down to the limestone bedrock, so engineers suspect it has spread off the site through groundwater. Tests in 2007 and 2009 confirmed that groundwater flows from the plant head southeast, so that area was the focus of vapor testing.

There has been limited off-site testing in the area immediately around the plant site since it was referred to the agency’s Superfund cleanup program almost two decades ago. Those tests, including ones for TCE vapors on the east side of the Boys & Girls Club, showed no significant impact.

‘Dark Shadow’

The 9-acre plant site, meanwhile, is deeply polluted. Neighbors say the remains of the main building are a danger to area children and homeless people who use it for shelter, and are a barrier to new development in the surrounding area.

“It casts such a large, dark shadow on this place,” said Flint Fowler, executive director of the neighboring Boys & Girls Club, a hub of activity for hundreds of area children that lies in the shadows of the abandoned plant. “I think it’s a huge deterrent to development. We’re going to toast when that building comes down.”

From the 1930s to the mid-1980s, Carter Carburetor was an economic engine for the neighborhood. The plant, which manufactured carburetors, employed as many as 3,000 people until it was shuttered in 1984.

Today, the city of St. Louis owns the northeast part of the property where two buildings were demolished in the late-1990s. The rest of the site, including the 480,000-square-foot main manufacturing building, belongs to businessman Tom Kerr.

The rotting plant has been an eyesore for years, neighbors say. And Kerr said every effort to make improvements has been rejected by the EPA.

Windows are smashed out of the four-story red brick structure, which is surrounded by a weed-choked parking lot and a rusty chain-link fence. Residents say children play on the empty asphalt lot and the homeless use the building as shelter at night, ignoring the signs outside that warn of PCB contamination.

As unwelcoming as the site is from street level, two decades of EPA testing paints an even uglier picture of what lies beneath the surface.

“We still have high levels of contamination over at that property that need to be dealt with,” said the EPA’s Jeff Weatherford, who is overseeing the site cleanup.

An estimated 30,000 cubic yards of soil is contaminated with PCBs, with the highest concentrations below where the old die cast buildings used to be until they were torn down and their foundations sealed with epoxy.

The other main contaminant is TCE that spilled from a storage tank west of the plant.

The EPA’s goal is to clean up the site so it is suitable for either recreational field or industrial use, Weatherford said.

Responsible Party

Cleanup plans were approved on March 30 by EPA Region 7 Administrator Karl Brooks, but there’s a long way to go before work can begin — the federal government needs a way to pay for it all.

A central tenet of the federal Superfund law is that the party responsible for the pollution funds the cleanup. The EPA hopes that former and current owners of the property agree to pay. If not, the government could go to court to force parties to pay, but litigation could add years to the process.

According to the EPA, previous and current owners who could be asked to pay for the cleanup include ACF Industries LLC, which owned operated the carburetor plant for more than half a century. ACF paid for the environmental analysis and cost study that helped determine the preferred cleanup alternative, but none of the parties have yet volunteered to fund the actual work.

“We’re hoping to get something started by the first of next year,” Weatherford said at last month’s neighborhood meeting.

Efforts to reach ACF were unsuccessful. The company, based in St. Charles, is controlled by billionaire investor Carl Icahn.

Kerr, who also has been listed by the EPA as being potentially responsible for some of the cleanup costs, believes it’s part of an effort by the EPA to pressure him to donating his part of the property to the Boys & Girls Club.

“That’s the leverage,” he said. “That’s the only reason they’re listing us as a responsible party.”

Whitley, the EPA spokesman, said the agency is still pursuing agreements with both parties.

“We’re moving in that direction,” he said. “How soon we might have it, I can’t begin to say.”

The Cleanup

The proposed cleanup involves tearing down the main manufacturing building and hauling away the contaminated rubble — a plan that Kerr disputes. Another smaller building at the southern edge of the property will be partially demolished.

Removing underground contamination at the site is trickier. It involves inserting thermal probes deep into the ground and heating the soil to 635 degrees to vaporize contaminants. The vapors are captured by a vacuum and cleaned.

The Missouri Coalition for the Environment and some area residents have raised questions about the vapor-testing technology, including whether it’s well-suited for the site given the concentrations of PCBs and the location next to the Boys & Girls Club.

“It needs to be a clean cleanup, and this technology might not be the best for that,” said Kathleen Logan-Smith, the coalition’s executive director. “Everybody wants it cleaned up. But they haven’t done this anywhere with contamination at this level. We need to be erring on the side of caution.”

Weatherford said the technology is safe and has previously been used in residential neighborhoods. A pilot test will be conducted on soil taken from the Carter site to prove it’s effective. If not, the EPA will look at more traditional cleanup methods, such as excavating and removing polluted soil.

Even that has risks because of the large area and depth of contamination. Excavation could pose a health risk because it would require digging a mammoth hole in the ground that could allow harmful vapors to escape.

“The contamination is 28 feet deep,” Weatherford said. “It’s a very extensive engineering task.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *