EHS Administration, Enforcement and Inspection

EPA Remiss in Remediation Steps at AR Superfund Site

Nearly a decade after the EPA called for additional soil sampling at the Vertac Inc. Superfund Site in Jacksonville, Arkansas, tests have not yet been performed, reports a December 18, 2021, Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article.

Superfund is the more commonly known name for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), a law enacted in 1980 to handle environmental waste emergencies and hazardous waste sites needing long-term cleanup.

Superfund sites have two classifications: remedial and removal. The EPA utilizes its Hazard Ranking System to assign sites a score from 0–100 based on the size of the site, the types of toxic materials at the location, and the threat to human health and the environment. Sites that score 28.5 or above are remedial sites that are placed on the National Priorities List (NPL) and scheduled for long-term cleanup. Removal sites involve sudden, environmental emergencies, such as chemical spills, oil spills, or factory fires.

The Vertac site provides a good reference point as a case study to review the impact and costs related to hazardous waste Superfund sites.

It is historically one of the most polluted industrial sites discovered in the United States. In 1979, the EPA announced it would be part of a 135-site study of hazardous waste landfills. The announcement caused some confusion at the time because the site wasn’t even known to have a landfill.

The property covered 193 acres, and herbicide and insecticide manufacturing took place on the southern 93 acres of the land. During its years of operations, the following products were made there:

  • DDT
  • 2,4-D
  • 2,4,5-T
  • Agent Orange

The first company to own the site was Reasor Hill Co., followed by Hercules Powder Co. The site was leased by Transvaal Inc. in 1971, which eventually bought the site in 1976. Transvaal then evolved into Vertac Chemical Corp.

“Vertac stopped making 2,4,5-T in 1979, after the EPA announced it was investigating the site’s wastes. The site was added in 1983 to EPA’s [NPL] for cleanup using the Superfund, a federal trust fund that pays for cleaning up hazardous wastes,” the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette says. “Vertac abandoned the site in 1987.”

As the EPA investigation continued, thousands of barrels of hazardous waste were found buried at the location.

“Untreated wastewater had been discharged into Rocky Branch, which flows through the Vertac site on its way to Bayou Meto,” continues the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “The EPA found contamination at the Vertac site, the surrounding neighborhood, a Jacksonville wastewater treatment plant and in the creeks. … In the cleanup that followed, about 25,000 barrels of chemicals were incinerated onsite, and another 3,000 were shipped to Kansas for incineration.  The manufacturing plant was dismantled and buried in an onsite landfill. Another on-site landfill holds polluted soil. On the surface, the soil is clean, but the groundwater is contaminated and will be monitored indefinitely, according to the EPA.”

Hazardous waste found on the site included dioxin; benzene; phenols; 2,4-D; and 2,4,5-T.

In 1998, it was reported that cleanup costs were estimated at $150 million.

“Hercules, held responsible for nearly $120 million of that cost, hired Terracon Consultants Inc. to maintain the 93-acre site, which is off limits to the public. Jody Adams, Terracon’s project geologist, said the company monitors groundwater and treats water collected in a French drain,” according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “The city of Jacksonville has taken over the northern 100-acre site for use by the police, fire and street departments. It also has a recycling center.”

Additional testing ordered

The term dioxin commonly refers to the compound in this group that’s considered most toxic: 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin (TCDD).

Dioxins are called persistent organic pollutants (POPs), meaning they take a long time to break down once they are in the environment. They are highly toxic and can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, and damage to the immune system and can interfere with hormones.

When the EPA first evaluated the Vertac site, the threshold of dioxin considered toxic to human health and the environment was higher. However, the Agency reassessed the chemical’s toxicity and lowered the threshold.

The EPA’s “Fourth Five-Year Review Report” of the site states:

“Instead of 1 part per billion, soil concentrations as low as 50 parts per trillion of dioxin, depending on a variety of exposure factors, are recommended for review as of human health and the environment. Technical information for the fourth five-year review was collected between April and November 2013 and are documented in this report. In broadest terms, EPA finds that the remedies selected continue to be protective in areas where remediation was conducted but more testing is needed to determine if additional action is needed in areas outside of active remediation areas. The EPA will immediately commence negotiations with the Responsible Party, in collaboration with ADEQ, to collect and evaluate additional sampling data.”

According to the 2014 report, these evaluations were planned for completion by 2019.

“But as of Dec. 7 [2022], the agency had yet to finalize its testing strategy for the properties,” the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette says. “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. …  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.

“‘[The 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. ‘[The EPA] is prioritizing the work and is committed to carrying out the sampling effort in order to protect human health and the environment.’”

Takeaway

Although the CERCLA program has been notoriously underfunded throughout its history, the enactment of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November 2021 provided $3.5 billion in much-needed additional funding for the EPA to conduct response actions and cleanup at federal Superfund sites across the United States.

As the Vertac site example shows, corporate financial responsibility for hazardous waste cleanup at manufacturing sites can continue indefinitely. Hercules is still paying for maintenance and monitoring 40 years after the site was added to the NPL.

With compliance inspections increasing, industry is advised to ensure it remains in compliance with hazardous waste disposal laws.