Whirlpool’s spin cycle

TCW Editorial

The Fort Smith Board of Directors should put the brakes on this request by Whirlpool Corp. to ban the installation of groundwater wells in an area near the company's former manufacturing plant in Fort Smith.

Robert Jones III, an attorney out of Fayetteville representing Whirlpool, was in Fort Smith on Tuesday (Feb. 12) to explain to members of the Fort Smith Board and city staff why a ban on such wells is in the best interest of those living in the polluted area.

Contamination was caused from the use of trichloroethylene (TCE) at Whirlpool from about 1967 until 1981. From this contamination, a broad “plume” of TCE-polluted water lies under several homes north of Whirlpool’s Fort Smith plant. Dr. Tamara House-Knight, an environmental expert on hand to help Jones explain his case, said TCE is harmful if ingested. The stuff can cause cancer. It’s tougher on children than adults.

Jones and Whirlpool want us all to believe they have our best interests at heart, and that in no way is the company trying to shirk its responsibilities with respect to any environmental damage it may have caused. They just want a blanket ban on wells so those good people in that area aren’t harmed.

Like the water under those homes, the story from Whirlpool is not something we should immediately swallow.

There are three good reasons the Board should review more carefully this request and the matter of pollution from the plant.

The first reason is that Whirlpool hasn’t especially proven itself trustworthy. Ask hundreds of former Whirlpool workers about the difference between treatment they were promised and treatment they received.

Further, the comments by Jones and the consultants are suspect. They suggested that the science is comfortably certain on TCE and they are working close with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) to monitor the polluted plume. It was also noted that building swimming pools – which could reach the depths at which the tainted water is found – would not be a problem because TCE is harmful only if ingested orally.

Not so fast. Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and other reports indicate that there is much to be learned about the dangers of TCE. Several groups of scientists who for years have been focused on TCE are uncertain of its impact. We also should be uncertain.

Also, Environmental Health Intelligence reported that TCE exposure is possible through “dermal contact” – which is to say it could be absorbed through the skin.

The second reason is that Jones and Whirlpool seek to assure us that the ADEQ is aggressive in requiring Whirlpool to monitor the pollution and stay on top of the situation. However, the ADEQ is not necessarily the cop we want on this beat. Their environmental stewardship track record is spotty, at best. Therefore, we may want to do all we can to legally and strategically ensure that we’re not years down the road beholden to pollution-mitigation decisions agreed to by the good suits in Little Rock and Benton Harbor, Mich.

A third reason is that we don’t know what we don’t know about other environmental issues at the plant, the process by which those are mitigated, and the reasons for this sudden push for a groundwater well ban.

Maybe our Board and city staff should request a full report – and share it with the public – from those able monitors at ADEQ before we grant blanket protection requests on behalf of Whirlpool.

This TCE problem has been known for more than 11 years, but now it’s an emergency and we should hurry and issue this groundwater well ban. Why now the sense of urgency?

And why the blanket ban? When asked by a Board member about Whirlpool’s obligation to help homeowners with any lost property value as a result of residing atop this pollution plume, Mr. Jones said the company would deal with each homeowner individually.

The way this works is that Whirlpool wants to protect its interests with a blanket approach, but is not interested in the same approach for homeowner interests – homeowners, by the way, without the capacity to afford teams of consultants and lawyers.

This ban requested by Whirlpool isn’t the only way to protect those living under this polluted plume. The city could, for example, establish a process by which any activity that could disturb the soil and/or water table in this area be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Maybe city officials ask Whirlpool to pay the cost of the city hiring and managing an independent environmental team. It’s called getting a second opinion.

It’s possible that at the end of further review, the groundwater ban is the best approach.

But addressing the extent of pollution caused by a multi-national corporation that recently pulled out of town should require more questions, more consideration.

We could never get a straight answer out of Whirlpool officials about the plant’s future, so it’s reasonable to be skeptical of their answers about the plant’s pollution.