Whirlpool: No exposure risk from TCE pollution

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 218 views 

The city of Fort Smith, including the city's Board of Directors, got their first look at what will be discussed at tomorrow night's (Oct. 8) special study session, when Whirlpool will be on hand to give an update on pollution remediation efforts at the company's former manufacturing facility.

Whirlpool has admitted that the area around the plant was contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE), a potentially cancer-causing chemical the company used from the 1960s through the 1980s as a degreasing agent. The contamination has in recent decades spread to a neighborhood north of the Whirlpool plant, located on Ingersoll Road in southern Fort Smith.

In a draft document provided to Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders and the Board, Whirlpool Vice President Jeff Noel says there is no risk to Fort Smith residents from the TCE plume.

"Is the TCE plume staying in the same place? Are residents safe? The answer to both questions is yes," he writes. "Does whirlpool have a plan to aggressively attack the TCE and remove it from the groundwater? Yes. Will Whirlpool stay around until this issue has been fully addressed? Yes."

Stating that there is no risk from TCE to residents, Noel invoked what he said was the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality's view of TCE.

"ADEQ has stated publicly that there is no risk of exposure to the TCE – and thus no risk to human health. You can't touch it, drink it or breathe it."

Asked why, if that was the case, ADEQ would require cleanup of the contamination, ADEQ Public Outreach and Assistance Division Chief Katherine Benenati clarified the agency's position.

"The groundwater is currently not being utilized for drinking water purposes. Provided the contaminated groundwater is not used as a drinking water source or the residents do not come in contact with the contaminated groundwater (don’t touch it; don’t drink it) there is no potential risk. The current levels of TCE in the groundwater have not shown an unacceptable risk to the vapor intrusion pathway. ADEQ is requiring Whirlpool to take appropriate remedial actions to mitigate the contamination of TCE in the groundwater."

Noel also asserted that the area's geology prevents soil vapor from bringing TCE to the surface.

"We know there is no risk of exposure because of the geology of the area," he writes. "Immediately below the ground surface is a layer of dense silt and clay extending above the ground water, which is generally 12-15 feet below the surface in the neighborhood to the north of the plant. Below the clay and silt are layers of sand, gravel, and at the bottom, shale/bedrock."

He said the latter was important for two reasons – residents will not come in contact with groundwater under normal circumstances due to depth and as stated previously, the surface would not allow for vapors to be released in the area.

The plume, he said, is also stable, adding that "the network of monitoring wells in this area has shown some fluctuations in concentrations, which is expected."

It contradicts an Aug. 1 report from ADEQ, in which the agency said the plume was growing.

Even though the agency has previously said the plume was moving, it is now agreeing with Whirlpool that the plume is stable.

"Based off the latest data, the TCE contaminated plume is not near the southern border of the Whirlpool property. ADEQ agrees the TCE concentrations have fluctuated in concentration but the extent of the plume, both northern and southerly directions, appear to be staying the same," Benenati said.

Fort Smith City Director Keith Lau cried foul about the agency's apparent mid-course reversal in a telephone call this afternoon.

"The question for me is what information made them (ADEQ) reverse their opinion of whether the plume is growing or not?" he asked. "I'm not an environmental engineer and I have to rely on someone to give me good data."

Whirlpool, working with environmental consulting firm ENVIRON, has submitted plans to remediate the site and remove the TCE contamination.

"Our attack will oxidize and destroy the TCE at the source area and target areas of concentration," he writes. "We will utilize a process of targeted chemical oxidation. Small wells will be inserted in known areas of higher concentration, which will be used to inject a proven, safe chemical that eliminates the concentrations of TCE in that area. The injection process will target the areas of highest concentration, while at the same time helping to facilitate the already occurring natural breakdown of the remaining TCE through a process called natural attenuation."

Whirlpool has also pledged to monitor the TCE levels even after the chemical has been eliminated or returned to normal levels, reporting to the ADEQ every three months and posting updates to WhirlpoolFortSmith.com.

"All monitoring will be authorized by ADEQ and executed with ADEQ oversight," he wrote.

Noel said Whirlpool is also working to redevelop the site, which envelops about 152 acres.

"While we will not know exactly what will happen until a sale is finalized, we anticipate that the use of the property may be mixed – green space, industrial, commercial, and retail – to maximize the full use of the site," he wrote.

The release of Whirlpool's memo to the Board comes on the same day ADEQ provided The City Wire with a draft of its “Remedial Action Decision Document (RADD) for Corrective Action” for Whirlpool's Fort Smith location.

The RADD largely addresses the Whirlpool site itself and how to treat contamination in order for the site to be able to be used in the future.

"ADEQ has determined containment of the soils and In-Situ Chemical Oxidation/Reduction coupled with Monitored Natural Attenuation (MNA) for the groundwater are the most effective remedial approaches at the Whirlpool facility," the document states.

To deal with surface and subsurface soils at the Whirlpool site, the ADEQ is recommending covering the impacted soil area with asphalt at a cost of $600,000.

"The cover will be designed to prevent the water from misgrating through the contaminated soils. The cover will be coupled with an institutional control to prevent excavation of the on-site impacted soils. In addition, Whirlpool will implement a soil gas monitoring program to be sampled on a quarterly basis."

To address the groundwater contamination, three treatment areas will be constructed on-site and off-site, as discussed in Noel's memo to the Board.

"The type and quantity of oxidant or reducing agent will be determined by bench testing of impacted aquifer materials. … In addition to the chemical treatment remedy, MNA will be conducted for the on-site and off-site plume."

The cost for treating the affected areas with chemicals is estimated at $5.4 million.

ADEQ is still pushing for institutional controls, as well, though the plans mentioned in the RADD specifically deal with the Whirlpool site while previous attempts by Whirlpool to have restrictions placed on homes in the contaminated area were unsuccessful.

"A deed notification will be filed with appropriate land records office. The deed notification would identify the kinds of contaminants present, and describe activities that should not be conducted at the facility and grant site access to ADEQ. During the performance of routine groundwater monitoring at the facility, a facility evaluation will be conducted to ensure that there is no on-site use of the contaminated groundwater."