Environmental cleanup begins at public housing in Huntsville

Source: The Huntsville Times, March 3, 2011
By: Challen Stephens

Nine years after the state identified the site for testing, excavation crews are ripping up the contaminated earth around a public housing complex downtown and hauling away soil Boy Scouts had once used to grow a community garden.

Crews last week began a $4.3 million environmental cleanup, hosing soil with foam to reduce the odor, and rolling out dozens of truckloads daily laced with the decades-old byproducts of converting coal to gas.

That soil will end up 35 miles away in a landfill in Hillsboro, said Gary Andrew, on-scene coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Andrew said the cleanup at Searcy Homes is listed as “time critical,” a step beneath an emergency cleanup, but more pressing than the EPA label of “non time critical.”

“It’s because of the risk. That’s what puts it up there,” said Andrew on Wednesday, referring to the number of residents still living nearby.

Michael Lundy, executive director of the Huntsville Housing Authority, said the authority recently relocated the last of about 15 families from apartments that now sit behind a chainlink perimeter and black silt screen. The apartments on the other side of the fence, just feet away, remain occupied.

The contaminated soil dates back more than 60 years. Huntsville Gas Light used coal to manufacture gas on the site from 1872 to 1902. Other companies used the same process there until 1946.

The city bought the land in 1949, tore down the plant and later sold the site to the Housing Authority. Searcy Homes opened in 1967.

In October 2008, EPA found fuel processing byproducts, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, at levels beyond the federal benchmark for carcinogens, and began plans to remove the soil.

But the contamination was first noticed years earlier by the Alabama Department of Environment Management, which targeted the site in 2002 and began testing in 2003.

According to the EPA’s Removal Site Evaluation, the state in 2004 found “the presence of contaminants of concern. However, the site received low priority for further assessment.”

Boy Scouts of Troop 400, unaware of the problem, continued to raise okra and corn, squash and tomatoes on soil suspected of posing a health risk. The excavation site is also home to the neighborhood basketball court.

“I don’t know if they at the time of the initial investigation knew that the garden was part of the impacted area,” said Andrew. “I could not speak to that.”

An ADEM spokesman did not return calls for this report.

In 2007, the state ran expanded tests, finding arsenic, mercury, chromium, cyanide and 14 organic compounds above the level for corrective action. In January 2008, the state called in the EPA.

Carcinogens were not absorbed into the vegetables handed out from the community garden, according to EPA reports, so the produce represented little risk when washed. Instead, people would have had to ingest soil directly while digging or playing outside.

“What we deal with is people coming into contact with the soils and not having good hygiene practices,” said Andrew on Wednesday. “It’s an issue of consumption.”

In November 2008, the EPA came to speak to the residents of Searcy Homes and shut down the garden. The authority quickly offered to relocate residents of seven affected buildings. But authority officials say only one or two residents asked to move.

The EPA also brought in Alagasco, the corporate descendant of the gas manufacturer. Alagasco hired GEI Consultants to conduct more testing, which in July of 2010 confirmed that 11 of 34 surface samples contained “concentrations of PAHs above the Residential PRGs (Proposed Removal Goals) based on cancer risk.”

GEI is now handling the work. Alagasco spokeswoman Susan Delenne estimates the cleanup will cost $4.3 million. According to an agreement reached in 2009, the Housing Authority is expected to contribute $300,000.

Delenne did not know how much soil would be replaced, but she said the site is “pretty much a dump truck convoy” throughout the day.

At the busiest point, said Andrew, crews could remove 45 to 50 truckloads per day. He said crews are planning several shallow excavations and three deeper digs to remove remnants of an old coal shed and two gas holders.

Lundy said a few families moved away two years ago, but most chose to wait until work began. “They plan to return once the work is complete,” he said.

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