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Hazardous waste lurks beneath Rock Hill site

The concrete area is where the hazardous waste incinerator was located at the former Petro-Chem site before it was dismantled in 1988.
The concrete area is where the hazardous waste incinerator was located at the former Petro-Chem site before it was dismantled in 1988.

A squirrel climbs onto a warehouse that once overflowed with drums of hazardous waste.

Startled pigeons burst from a building where toxic chemicals were dumped into an incinerator.

Grass thrives above an underground pool of 200,000 gallons of diesel fuel that leaked almost 20 years ago.

The only sound that seems out of synch with nature at this former hazardous waste incinerator on Rock Hill's southwest side is the dull roar of a groundwater extraction system that runs about 24 hours a day, every day.

For the past 20 years, the system has been keeping toxic underground water from flowing into Wildcat and Fishing creeks, which feed the Catawba River.

"All this wildlife is a good sign," said J. Lucas Berresford, a Columbia engineer associate with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and manager for the state-led cleanup of the former Petro-Chem site.

Over the years and throughout different ownerships, the one-time ThermalKEM plant -- a former hazardous waste transportation, storage and disposal facility -- has been plagued by fires, public controversy, government investigations, hefty fines and toxic pollution.

Now, the final chapter in its saga is about to be written -- cleaning up the now-decaying plant.

After finishing a four-year study, sampling and testing of the site's soil and water in April, DHEC officials expect cleanup to begin by mid-2010.

"The goal is to clean the property to be able to reuse it, to get the groundwater to drinking water standards," Berresford said. "But sometimes, that is not possible."

If drinking water standards can't be met with a cleanup, Berresford said, the property probably could not be developed as residential.

It could take up to 30 years, they say, largely because of how difficult it is to purify contaminated groundwater.

"Cleaning up groundwater is like getting soap out of a sponge," said William W. Toole, a Charlotte-based environmental attorney involved with the Petro-Chem plant.

The site is not believed to be a public health risk, Berresford said, because contaminants that might be hazardous are confined to the plant's 45-acre operations area -- surrounded by a 6-foot fence.

"Luckily, based on our investigation, it is isolated to the property," Berresford said, and the remaining 110-acre wooded area, which served as a buffer, is not contaminated.

Although the federal Environmental Protection Agency is consulting with state officials on the cleanup, the plant hasn't been declared a Superfund site -- but that still could happen.

Neighbors fight back

The 155-acre site at Vernsdale and Robertson roads opened as Industrial Chemical in 1966. The plant was sold in 1983 to Stablex, which became ThermalKEM in 1986 and operated the plant through 1995. Philip Services bought the operation and ran it as Petro-Chem until the company filed for bankruptcy and shut down in 2003.

The fear of exposure to pollutants once fueled the actions of vocal neighborhood groups who opposed the plant and who fought for years to shut it down. Those fears were backed up by a three-year study conducted by the University of South Carolina in 1995 that found residents living near ThermalKEM had twice the respiratory symptoms as those in a control group.

Residents and members of Nazareth Baptist Church, located just across the street from the plant, organized groups to oppose the plant.

Mary Ellen Connolly, who was a member of Citizens for Clean Air and Water, said issues surrounding the plant consumed the lives of many people.

"Some of the women fighting ThermalKEM bought off-brand peanut butter to save money so they could buy newspapers, make phone calls and send out newsletters against ThermalKEM," she said.

Johnie Mae Coachman, who lived near the plant, said she and Connolly took several trips to Washington, D.C., and Columbia to speak with government officials about concerns over the plant.

"We were down there sometimes twice a week," she said.

The plant -- no longer the focus of activists -- is now in the hands of DHEC. Since April, the state agency has been working on a plan for the site that will include just how to clean it up, how much it will cost and how long it will take. That plan is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

The groundwater and some of the soil on as much as half of the plant's former operating area is contaminated with three classes of volatile organic compounds, Berresford said. VOCs contain carbon and evaporate easily, increasing the likelihood that they can be inhaled.

Other high-level contaminants on site are chromium, lead, manganese and iron.

Exposure to any of those pollutants can cause adverse health effects -- from minor respiratory ailments to organ failure and cancer -- in people and animals depending on the degree of exposure and factors such as age, gender, race and pre-existing disease, said Alan Warren, director for environmental health science at the University of South Carolina Beaufort.

For a person to become sick, those pollutants must enter the body, Warren said. That could occur by drinking or touching contaminated groundwater, touching contaminated soil or from breathing toxins in the air.

Cleaning up

The groundwater extraction system is designed to prevent that human contact by keeping the contaminants from spreading. It pumps tainted water from underground trenches and filters out pollutants before sending cleaned water to Rock Hill's sewer system for further treatment.

Upgrades to the water cleaning system in early 2004 made it automated and more efficient -- now one employee runs the system, instead of three.

The system pumps and treats about 300,000 gallons of water each month at a cost of about $230,000 per year -- down from $350,000 per year before the upgrades.

"The money we are saving in operating costs will recoup the money that we put in upgrades," Berresford said.

The site assessment, sampling and work on the groundwater system has moved more quickly than at most Environmental Protection Agency sites, Berresford said, due to a custodial trust account of about $4 million set up to help pay for cleanup.

The trust was created by the Chapter 11 bankruptcy agreement reached in 2003 by Philip Services of Canada, former owner of Petro-Chem.

In addition to the money, Philip Services was required to put the Petro-Chem property into the trust. DHEC and the EPA are the beneficiaries of the trust account.

Since 2004, DHEC has spent $700,000 of trust fund money on upgrades and operation of the groundwater system, Berresford said. About $1 million of trust money was spent on the assessment and sampling.

Trust fund not enough

Although DHEC has not determined what the cleanup will cost, Berresford said, the more than $2 million left in the trust fund will not be enough.

"We will be looking to potential responsible parties to finance cleanup," he said.

That could include former owners or operators, generators of hazardous waste sent to the facility and companies that transported waste to the site.

Because of the Superfund law adopted by Congress in 1980 in the wake of the environmental disaster at Love Canal -- a New York neighborhood and school built on top of a hazardous waste dump in the 1950s -- the state and federal government can pursue those parties for cleanup costs, said Toole, who represents a group of private potential responsible parties that generated waste sent to the Petro-Chem site.

The site has more than 7,000 potential responsible parties that fall into those categories, Berresford said -- but only about half are still in business, Toole said.

Because hazardous waste facilities were not required to keep records of waste deliveries until 1980, more companies might have sent waste to the site than have been identified.

Several government agencies also sent waste there, including the military and the EPA. Both private and government parties of generators are willing to contribute to clean up costs, Toole said.

According to the law, former owners and operators can be ordered to help pay for cleaning up the site. They include Industrial Chemical and American NuKEM, which owned ThermalKEM.

Petrochem's former owner, Philip Services, which still is operating in other states, will not be responsible for cleanup beyond the money it already put into the trust account.

"That company had a number of pieces of property around the country that were environmentally impaired," said Mount Pleasant attorney Robert Kerr Jr., the court-appointed Petrochem site trustee. "They put money and property into trusts to be shed of clean up costs."

Efforts to reach the former owner of Industrial Chemical were unsuccessful. Officials with Philip Services did not respond to a request for comment. In 1995, American NuKEM, parent company of ThermalKEM, was sold to RWE Entsorgung AG, a subsidiary of the Germany utility RWE AG, said Beate Scheffler, director of corporate communications for German NUKEM, American NuKEM's owner prior to 1995. Efforts to reach officials with RWE Entsorgung AG for comment were unsuccessful.

Not the only site

South Carolina has about 25 sites that DHEC is involved in cleaning up, Berresford said.

Contaminated sites such as Petro-Chem were much more common in the late 1980s and 1990s than they are today, Toole said. "There are very few sites being added in."

EPA spokeswoman Laura Niles said there are no more commercial hazardous waste incinerators left in the Southeast.

"Businesses are not generating as much waste," said Beth Antley, combustion specialist for the EPA.

Instead of incineration, Antley said, most businesses now recycle waste or use other means of disposal, such as "cement kilns," which use the energy value of hazardous waste to convert limestone into cement.

"You can't completely get rid of the incinerator," Antley said. "But the goal is waste minimization -- less and less incinerated over time."

That is a victory a long time in the making for hundreds of people such as 98-year-old Paul Sacco of Rock Hill, who has owned property near the plant for more than 50 years.

"We battled the state for eight years over ThermalKEM," said Sacco, who still lives less than 2 miles from the plant. "In October, I will be 99 years old, and I've lost a lot of my fire ... I keep hoping something will get done."

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