COLUMBIA — State environmental inspectors found arsenic and/or lead in some of the 85 soil samples taken Wednesday in the yards of Rosewood neighbors who already are upset with reports of contamination on the site of an aging asphalt plant.
It will be next week before authorities learn whether those elements are present at concentrations that exceed environmental standards, said Jim Beasley, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is sending a team to Columbia on Thursday to help DHEC analyze the samples, Beasley said. The EPA team might inspect the SEACO Inc. plant site itself or suggest other actions, the spokesman said.
‘It’s very scary…’
Jenna Stephens, president of the Rosewood Neighborhood Council, said learning about lead and arsenic has raised worries in the community.
“We’re concerned about a plant that we can smell and that it has not been proven to us that there is no air pollution,” she said. “And now there is soil contamination. It’s very scary to hear words like lead and arsenic.”
DHEC alerted the EPA after learning last week that elevated levels of those two elements have been found on plant property located near the Jim Hamilton-L.B. Owens airport, DHEC director Catherine Templeton told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
The presence of lead is particularly concerning because children 6 and younger and pregnant women are more vulnerable to the damage lead can do to their health, according to the EPA’s website. There are eight parks, four schools, and 3,000 residents close to the plant, Stephens said.
Also nearby are a high school football stadium, soccer fields, a Boys and Girls Club and an urban farm.
In small children, lead exposure threatens the nervous system and can cause brain damage, behavioral and hearing problems as well as headaches and anemia. In rare circumstances, acute lead poisoning can cause seizures and even death. Pregnant women may miscarry or give birth to babies prematurely or with mental or learning disabilities.
By 5 p.m. Wednesday, DHEC inspectors had conducted preliminary, on-site screening of 55 of the 85 samples taken from 41 homes, six businesses, two parks and seven in public rights of way, Beasley said. The five teams of inspectors remained in the field later into the afternoon. The homes where samples were taken are along Easy and Howe streets, Corning Road and Kingswood Drive near the plant.
Each plug of soil was labeled and given a GPS tag so that analysts can pinpoint where the samples were removed, Beasley said.
The agency expects to notify the property owners who agreed to have their soil tested of the findings, the spokesman said. No more soil testing is planned.
DHEC also said Wednesday that groundwater contamination on the plant site has not seeped into the Congaree River. Monitoring has not turned up any lead in the river, the agency said in a news release. More sampling will be done at other Congaree River locations as well as in Gills Creek, which feeds into the river.
Drinking water safe
Drinking water in Rosewood will not be affected because residents get their water from Columbia’s water pipes.
Rosewood neighbors have hired attorney Dick Harpootlian’s firm and filed open-records requests with DHEC. Residents want to learn as much as they can about the SEACO plant and Associated Asphalt Inc., of Roanoke, Va., which is buying the facility, Stephens, of the neighborhood association said.
Stephens and a contingent of Rosewood residents met Wednesday morning with city manager Steve Gantt, Mayor Steve Benjamin, Councilman Moe Baddourah, whose district includes Rosewood, city attorney Ken Gaines and other officials.
Other than to uphold zoning standards, city government has little jurisdiction over the plant, which has operated there since 1947, Gantt said. The only way a zoning issue would arise is if the facility is enlarged or significant changes are made that would trigger a zoning review. Stephens said the documents received from DHEC indicate that Associated Asphalt has plans to expand.
“We support the neighborhood and will do what we can for them,” Gantt said. “But the city doesn’t have a mechanism to make (the plant) go away. It’s pretty much in DHEC’s court.”
Stephens, who called the meeting at City Hall, said she left feeling the neighborhood might have allies on City Council to oppose an expansion but little else.
“I believe that they’re on our side,” she said. “But I didn’t hear any concrete ideas.”
The discovery of elevated levels of lead and arsenic on the plant site followed the initial finding in May that arsenic is in the soil and groundwater.
It is unusual to find arsenic at an asphalt plant, DHEC officials said. But a fertilizer plant operated on the same site during the early 1900s, they said.