story by Ryan Saylor
Officials with Whirlpool will participate in a Fort Smith Board of Directors study session on Tuesday, July 8 at 6 p.m. — a meeting that follows revelations that trichloroethylene (TCE) around the company’s now-shuttered manufacturing facility may be worse than previously thought.
City Administrator Ray Gosack said the purpose of the meeting is to keep an open line of communication between the city and the corporation.
"I think it's mainly for communication, to learn more about what's happening," he said. "I think the public is expecting the city government to stay on top of this issue."
Legal counsel for the city has previously stated that it did not have regulatory enforcement powers over the company, but Gosack said the meeting was not intended to be an enforcement mechanism.
"Even though the city may have no enforcement authority, I think the public is looking to the city government to stay on top of the issue. And we've been doing that since Whirlpool first approached us nearly two years ago about the water well ban. And so I think it's mainly trying to fulfill a public expectation."
According to Gosack, prior to that time there was no involvement from the city in the process, meaning not only were city officials in the dark, but residents were, as well.
"Because prior to the city government's involvement, there was no communication from Whirlpool, ADEQ, or anyone else. And when the city first became involved in this, one of the things the Board of Directors said they wanted was better communication so the public would have better awareness of what's happened. Prior to the city government's involvement, the last communication I saw was 2001 and 2002, when there was a little bit of public notice about the TCE contamination. Between then and 2012, there was little public awareness of what was going on."
City Director Keith Lau said he did not expect much new information from the July 8 meeting and instead said the meeting should be between the city and the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality.
"I actually think we should be meeting with the ADEQ instead of Whirlpool since they are the ones with regulatory oversight. Whirlpool is going to tell us the least amount they can. … In the end, they are a for-profit corporation that is protecting their interests. We have to take that with a grain of salt. We can't look to them for solutions, we have to look to the ADEQ."
Gosack did extend an invitation to ADEQ to be present at the same meeting, though ADEQ has yet to formally accept, according to Katherine Benenati, ADEQ's public outreach and assistance division chief. She said the agency has not "had a chance to discuss internally our attendance at the meeting."
"I think the Board said they wanted better communication not only with Whirlpool, but also with ADEQ and ADEQ has made that commitment, as well. And there has been much improved communication in the last 16 months or so," Gosack said about his invitation of the agency.
When the July 8 study session occurs, Lau said he wants the ADEQ to be accountable for holding Whirlpool to task as the regulatory agency of record.
"So who's our representative? Who's in our corner? That's the ADEQ. We should be bringing the ADEQ in here and say, 'Look, hold these guy's feet to the fire and clean this thing up.'"
Sure to come up during the meeting is a soil investigation work plan, submitted by ENVIRON — Whirlpool's environmental consultants — on Tuesday (May 27). The work plan was requested by ADEQ following the revelations of additional TCE pollution at the Whirlpool site. Michael Ellis of ENVIRON said in a letter to ADEQ that the company would probe the soil at least 15 times in the area as part of the work plan.
The soil investigation is scheduled to begin the week of June 23, he said, lasting about one week. A second round of chemical oxidation treatments began Tuesday and will continue through June 6.
The July 8 study session will be held at 6 p.m. instead of its normal time of noon, Gosack said, in order to allow more of the public to attend the meeting. The meeting will be held at the Cavanaugh Senior Center located at 2700 Cavanaugh Road.