EPA looks to end 30 years of contamination at old Benfield site

fr riverbendIt’s been 32 years since Benfield Industries in Hazelwood burned to the ground, 25 since the Environmental Protection Agency designated it as a Superfund site and 13 since cleanup on the site finished. 

But the work’s not done, according to the most recent EPA monitoring. The agency is hoping that its latest remediation plan for the former chemical distribution company site will take care of creosote contamination in Hazelwood once and for all. 

Is it worth it?

Despite years of negative publicity surrounding the contamination of soil at Barber’s Orchard, the actual health risk posed by the soil is miniscule, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The only health hazard comes from eating the soil, not just once or twice accidentally, but on a regular basis for 30 years.

“It’s 30 years of eating two grams of dirt per day,” said Jon Bornholm with the Environmental Protection Agency. “Kids were the main concerns because they are the ones more likely to eat some dirt.”

Consuming Barber’s Orchard dirt at that rate would increase the risk of getting cancer by one in 10,000, or by .01 percent.

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 30 percent of adults will get cancer. Eating dirt daily from Barber’s Orchard for 30 years would bump a person up from a 30 percent to a 30.01 percent chance of getting cancer.

There is no risk from touching the dirt, inhaling the dirt, eating vegetables grown in the dirt or eating livestock that grazed on the site — but only from direct and repeated digestion.


Monkeys to the rescue

Pollution in the soil varies from higher concentrations to none at all. Figuring out how much was too much was not easy. Could soil with only the slightest trace amounts be left where it is, or did it all have to go?

To answer that question researchers bagged up soil from Barber’s Orchard and sent it off to a lab where it was fed to monkeys. The monkeys were then studied to determine how much arsenic from the soil was actually absorbed into their blood stream. Pigs were also fed doses of the Barber’s Orchard soil.

The study equaled good news for taxpayers’ wallets. It turned out the absorption of arsenic from eating the soil was less than originally thought. The threshold for acceptable arsenic level was lowered from 40 parts per million to 80 parts per million.

That in turn downwardly revised how much soil had to be removed, from 117 acres to only 88 acres. And the price tag on the project fell from an estimated $24 million to $15 million.

Uphill battle to purge Barber’s Orchard of dirty soil

Residents of Barber’s Orchard will safely be able to eat the dirt on their lots after a $15 million federal cleanup of the subdivision.

Trace levels of arsenic in the soil date to its former days as an apple orchard, when underground pipes leached arsenic-laced pesticide, landing it on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund list.

Given the cleanup cost, it might have been cheaper to condemn the contaminated land and pay the owners for it, but that’s not what EPA does.

“That was my first thought too. The law does not allow us to do that in this case. If there is a risk the law requires us to clean it up as best as we can,” said Jon Bornholm, an EPA Superfund project manager out of Atlanta.

State taxpayers are on the hook for 10 percent of the clean-up cost. The state signed a contract pledging its commitment back in 2005.

While it is a dramatically different economic — and political — landscape today, the state can’t go back on the commitment, according to Nile Testerman, a state environmental engineer who serves as a liaison to the EPA on Superfund projects.

“They have already allocated the money for this clean up,” said Testerman.

When contaminates were discovered in 1999, the EPA tested the soil and water on all the lots where people were living. Of the 90 homes in the subdivision at the time, about 25 required immediate soil removal.

“We only cleaned up the manicured portion of contaminated yards. If somebody owned five acres, but only half an acre of that was a yard with a lawn, that half acre is the only part that was cleaned up,” said Bornholm.

The cost during the first phase was $5 million, plus another $2.3 million to run a water line to service homeowners who could not safely drink from their wells.

Ensuing soil tests of the entire subdivision showed that 45 percent of the remaining acreage is contaminated. The costly cleanup requires digging up and hauling off the top foot of soil from 88 acres.

The work is supposed to be done in September, but contractors have been working six months already and only removed 25,000 cubic yards — there’s another 90,000 to go. Bornholm seemed skeptical they would finish by September but said the contractors claim it will get faster as they go.

The work is being performed under a no-bid contract by ERS, Emergency Rapid Response. Instead of awarding the job to the lowest bidder, EPA is being billed hourly for the labor and equipment used on the job by ERS, a pre-approved contractor for Superfund sites.

“In a project like this there are too many unknowns,” Bornholm said. “The agency felt this was the cheapest approach versus going out for bid.”

The contractor, based in St. Louis, has about 40 workers on site. Bringing in clean soil accounts for about $3 million of the total project cost. That portion of the job was bid out, going to Caroline-A-Contracting run by Burton Edwards of Maggie Valley.


Where to put all that dirt?

Trucking away and disposing of the old dirt will account for about a third of the project’s cost.

The soil must be dumped in a lined landfill, but it’s a lot of dirt, and would make a pretty big dent in most landfills. In Haywood County, where taxpayers recently ponied up $4.5 million for a landfill expansion, there wasn’t the space to spare. Buncombe County’s landfill turned it away as well.

“Haywood County does not have the space and Buncombe simply does not want it,” Bornholm said.

The EPA initially found a willing taker at a landfill in South Carolina. That option was dropped in favor of a landfill in Athens, Tenn. Trucking costs, plus landfill fees for every ton, would still be exorbitant, however.

A cheaper — and closer to home — option may be on the horizon. Evergreen paper mill in Canton owns a private landfill for its industrial waste, and has recently filled up one of its cells. It needs dirt, lots of it, to cap it off, and Barbers Orchard certainly has some to spare. It could well be a match made in heaven.

The mill and EPA are still in negotiations over a soil deal. The mill must also get permission from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources to use the soil for landfill cover.

With contractors stuck in holding pattern over the dirt’s ultimate resting point, they’ve had to construct a second lined holding area to stock pile it.

State reprimands EPA over Superfund cleanup

Federal contractors performing a $15 million cleanup of Barber’s Orchard have violated state erosion laws, failing to keep the arsenic-tainted soil from eroding and washing away, according to state environmental inspectors.

The massive operation calls for digging up the top foot of soil from 88 acres, trucking it off and hauling in clean dirt to replace it.

“It’s been something to watch them trying to keep this from washing away,” said Carolyn Large, a homeowner in the Haywood County subdivision, whose view now includes a barren hillside of dirt rutted with gulleys from the rain.

See also: Uphill battle to purge Barber’s Orchard of dirty soil

Trace levels of arsenic in the soil date back to its days as an apple orchard, when pesticides leached into the soil from a system of underground pipes. The Environmental Protection Agency designated it a Superfund site more than a decade ago and is overseeing the cleanup.

“The whole effort is to remediate the site and we don’t want to do more damage by remediating it than it we had left in place,” said Landon Davis, a state groundwater specialist based in Asheville.

A massive team of state inspectors descended on the site last month: officials from both Asheville and Raleigh across three separate branches of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

See also: Is it worth it?

The team of inspectors found sediment had washed into nearby creeks, onto neighbors’ property and even down one woman’s well.

“I’m surprised they don’t have better control of that,” said Tom Beaty, another homeowner in Barber’s Orchard. “With the steepness of the slopes, I don’t know how they are going to do it.”

The contractors fell down in two areas: they not only had an inadequate plan to deal with sediment from the get go, but over-extended themselves by laying bare too much of the mountainside at one time, according to the state environmental agencies.

“Our concerns are that the site did lose sediment to the stream, and it did not appear there were adequate measures in place to prevent that from happening in future rain events,” said Roger Edwards, water quality specialist with the N.C. Division of Water Quality.

The EPA contractor erred by relying solely on rows of fabric silt fences and straw bales, which is hardly adequate when faced with acres and acres of a stripped mountainside, said Gray Hauser, a sediment specialist with the N.C. Division of Land Quality.

The standard practice in mountainous terrain is sediment basins, which act like a retaining pond to catch sediment-laden rainwater running off the site.

The cleanup has three main steps: slash down the trees, dig up the contaminated soil, and bring in new soil.

The contractor moved too rapidly across the mountain, slashing new areas for excavation before old ones were covered back up, according to inspectors.

“Obviously they need to get what they got opened up under control,” Hauser said.

A drive through Barber’s Orchard reveals giant swaths of the mountainside that are slashed and partially excavated, then left exposed. Contractors have more than 45 acres in some stage of active excavation. Only 10 to 15 acres have been finished and covered back up with clean dirt.

“I think what happened is they went too quickly on the work that was being done,” said Nile Testerman, a state environmental engineer who serves as a liaison to the EPA on Superfund projects. “Now they have stepped back.”

Jon Bornholm, the EPA project manager for the site, was a little more forgiving on the subject.

“I think they are feeling that out right now,” Bornholm said when asked about the contractor’s zeal for opening up new areas. As for tempering that zeal?

“They have come to that decision on their own. They are not excavating anymore until they get caught up,” Bornholm said.

State inspectors say they told the contractor as much.

“That was our suggestion, that they stabilize existing areas and not open up more than they can get stabilized and protected,” Edwards said.

The project will cost more if done piecemeal, with smaller sections at a time being worked on, however.

“One issue is the cost of the efficiency of the excavation and backfill. If you do small parcels at a time, the cost will go up,” said Will Smith, the onsite EPA field rep.

The site poses sediment challenges to say the least. The very nature of the job — stripping the top soil from a vast expanse of a steep mountainside — is an erosion nightmare.

“We have lots of exposed areas so when there’s heavy rain, we have lots of erosion,” Bornholm said. “We know there is going to be erosion. It is keeping it contained.”

In one area, contractors hit the groundwater table during excavation, opening up hidden springs.

“They had a steady flow of water over raw earth. It was pushing a lot of sediment off site,” Hauser said.

That was in addition to some major rains in April, one that brought an inch and a half of rain in a day.

Unchecked erosion from Barber’s Orchard heads downhill into Richland Creek, which then runs through the heart of Waynesville.

“If you have that long enough you will have deposition of sediment in that creek and that’s not good for habitat. Even if it is clean soil. But worse yet is runoff from Orchard soil, that is a big concern,” said Landon Davis, a groundwater specialist with the state Aquifer Protection agency.

Smith said none of the contaminated soil has washed away. He said erosion was limited to areas already covered over with clean dirt.

However, Hauser said sediment has washed off all portions of the project — including areas where contaminated soil was actively being excavated.


Who has authority?

State inspectors weren’t sure at first how much authority they had.

“I spent a good bit of time trying to research what our options are,” Hauser said.

“This is unique situation,” Edwards said.

As a federal Superfund site, the project is exempt from filing a sediment and erosion control plan with either the county or state. It isn’t exempt from state erosion laws, however.

“We don’t have to get the permits, but we have to meet the substantive requirements, which means control the runoff as best as you can,” Bornholm said.

State law dictates that no soil is supposed to leave the site.

Without a plan, sediment officers don’t know until after it is too late whether a site may be destined for erosion problems. The beauty of crafting a sediment plan is feedback from state inspectors.

“One of the main standards of the sediment and erosion control program is to develop a plan before you start and follow the plan,” said Hauser. “The Superfund activities don’t have to have a plan and that makes it very difficult.”

EPA’s Bornholm countered that the contractor did write a sediment and erosion control plan before they started. However, it was only a rough outline of their intention to use straw bales and silt fences. There were no maps showing the streams or the land’s contour, no diagrams of where erosion safeguards should go, and no calculations of how many it would take.

The state also never got a chance to see the contractor’s outline before work started.

“We never approve a sediment and erosion control plan in the state of North Carolina that uses straw bales as their primary means of control,” Hauser said.

The plan would not have met Haywood County’s criteria either, according to Marc Pruett, the Haywood County erosion enforcement officer.

Some Superfund projects get sediment and erosion permits even though they don’t have to, Testerman said. The reason not to — and why sites are exempt in the first place — is usually one of timing, Testerman said.

“When we get ready to clean up these sites, we don’t want the administrative process to hold up the work,” Testerman said.

In this case, time wasn’t exactly of essence, as it might be with a highway chemical spill.

Going forward, Hauser has called on the contractor to do proper sediment plans for each area.

“They were going to develop little plans in-house on each section before they open it up rather than it being an ad hoc process,” Hauser said.

Meanwhile, the Division of Water Quality has asked the EPA contractor to bring in an environmental consultant to delineate the streams, assess negative impacts and come up with a plan to restore them, but that is secondary to stemming the tide of sediment loss from the slopes.

“There is no point in cleaning up the streams until the site is stabilized,” Edwards said.

The contractor was also asked to change its approach for establishing ground covering, by placing netting over seeded areas to keep the seed from washing away until it can get established.

State erosion inspectors still have authority to inspect the site and issue violations and fines. At this stage, no one has issued a formal violation, although Hauser said if it was any other contractor they would have.

“I think they will follow our suggestions. I do believe the contractors are willing to follow our recommendations,” Edwards said.



One orchard’s journey from cutting edge to Superfund

While today people might curse the pollution it caused, the underground pesticide system at Barber’s Orchard was on the cutting edge of agriculture for its time.

A network of underground pipes carried pesticides through the orchard to a series of above ground nozzles. The pressurized system was easily activated, requiring little labor to spray the hillsides of apple trees.

The system was revolutionary. There was only one other system like it, at the Francis Farm apple orchard, also in Haywood County.

“Both of these men were icons of local agriculture,” said Landon Davis, a groundwater specialist with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Raleigh.

The downside is that the underground pipes leaked. Barber’s Orchard had a long run — from 1908 to 1988. In its early years, arsenic was an acceptable pesticide used against the codling moth, a major enemy of apple farmers. But the codling moth eventually developed a resistance to arsenic pesticides, requiring more and more of it to get the job done.

In the 1940s, arsenic was replaced with the equally bad DDT — which is now banned as well.

The orchard posed a perfect storm: heavy and prolonged pesticide use of both arsenic and DDT being delivered by pressurized underground pipes that leaked, Davis said.

“This is the only site like this in the country,” Davis said.

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