Fort Valley getting little help cleaning hazardous waste dump

September 7, 1997

The site, covered with synthetic materials, clay and dirt, has arsenic concentrations more than 300 times the accepted residential level

Associated Press

From the arched drive-through of the $2 million library under construction, Gilda Stanbery-Cotney can just see the top of the fenced, green mound behind the tire store across Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
"I sincerely have faith, even if it takes divine intervention, that they will not allow this to stay," said Stanbery-Cotney, the city’s librarian. "it’s a constant reminder of a constant threat."
The mound, just under an acre in size, is where Canadyne-Georgia Corp. dumped the worst of the toxic contamination more than a decade ago when it began cleaning up the old Woolfolk pesticide plant. The site is in the middle of Fort Valley, a predominantly black, middle Georgia town of 8,000.
Covered with synthetic materials, clay and dirt, the mound, or "cap" as it is called by residents, has arsenic concentrations more than 300 times the accepted residential level. In addition to the library, its immediate neighborhood includes a school for mentally impaired adults, a sports complex and dozens of small cinder-block homes.
Since 1990, the Woolfolk plant has been a federal Superfund site, part of the 16-year old program enacted by Congress to clean up the nation’s worst hazardous waste dumps.
Undisturbed during those seven years, the cap became a rallying point when the Environmental Protection Agency this summer finally proposed its cleanup plan: leaving the cap in place and monitoring it to be sure pollutants don’t leach into the city’s groundwater.
Black leaders call it environmental racism, and white business and government officials oppose it on economic grounds.
"Everything EPA did was designed to control the costs of this program for this company, without regard to the needs of this town," said Marvin Crafter, a city councilman and leader in the black community.
"It’s totally unacceptable to leave that cap there," said Jeff Holly, a white businessman and city councilman. "Realtors in surrounding cities are using that as a tool against our community."
The cap and Fort Valley’s seven-year odyssey as a Superfund site illustrate many of the problems that have plagued the Superfund program and made it impossible, despite five years of trying, for Congress to rewrite the law.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich said last month he wants to make another attempt this fall to revamp the Superfund program, but few observers believe that even the recent outbreak of bipartisanship in Congress can lead to an agreement.
"What the law does is drive up the cost of the cleanup, create a lot of divisions between the community, the regulatory agency and the company, and it lengthens the process by ;years," said Michael J. Kowalski, president of Canadyne-Georgia, which bought the Woolfolk plant in 1978.
Kowalski said his company already has spent $10 million on the Woofolk cleanup and likely will spend another $10 million before the process is completed, now projected for 2003.
Much of that spending was done prior to 1990, when the site was added to the National Priority List of the nation’s worst toxic waste dumps. By then, Canadyne-Georgia had demolished and removed several old buildings, trucked out 3,700 cubic yards of the most contaminated soil, and built the cap.
Kowalski said Canadyne-Georgia is prepared to implement the final cleanup plan EPA proposed – if the agency ratifies the proposal when it completes its review of public comment and issues its record of decision later this month.
The federal agency that monitors the health effects of superfund cleanups, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), has urged removal of the cap. That recommendation is based on fears that arsenic concentrations underneath the cap will leach into the aquifer that supplies the town’s water.
Already, two of the town’s five wells have been shut down because of low-levels of contamination from a different chemical that scientists say may have come from the Woolfolk site.
John Crellin, an environmental health scientist at ATSDR, said evaluations of some 50 people who lived around the site for years are suffering from skin lesions could not rule out the possibility that they were caused by arsenic exposure. Further studies are under way.
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