Naïve much?

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 177 views 

This news about Whirlpool officials indirectly admitting new details about pollution at their shuttered Fort Smith manufacturing plant tells us more about certain members of the Fort Smith Board of Directors than it does Whirlpool.

Recent information from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality shows that Whirlpool officials knew levels of TCE – a cancer-causing agent – were worse than previously disclosed when they presented a remediation plan that did not account for the higher risk.

ADEQ officials explained in a memo that in the northwest corner of the Whirlpool building there are “highly impacted soils” as deep as 30 feet, and that “a large quantity of contaminant mass (is) moving to the South.” The memo also noted that removing the pollution “will generate high volumes of highly contaminated soil and groundwater that will require management.”

State officials were not impressed with Whirlpool’s honesty on this issue.

"Although Whirlpool collected this MIP data 4-5 months ago, no discussion of the results or ramifications of this data was supplied to ADEQ," noted the ADEQ memo. "MIP data is presented in real time. Whirlpool certainly knew that this area was impacted prior to submitting the final Remedial Plan at the end of February."

To cut through the technical jargon, what this means is that we have no idea the extent of pollution on and around the Whirlpool property. If early investigation efforts revealed this drastic change, it should be clear that we may approach with suspicion any assumption of where this nasty TCE is or isn’t.

But we already knew Whirlpool was to not be trusted. Debbie Keith and former employees of Whirlpool’s Fort Smith plant tried more than a year ago to tell state and city officials and anyone else who would listen that we should discount 99% of anything Whirlpool officials and their hired environmental engineers said about property pollution. That’s probably not the most diplomatic approach, but then again, the time for diplomacy may have expired considering what Whirlpool officials have said with a straight face about their pollution in Fort Smith.

Whirlpool Vice President Jeff Noel has said there are no health risks to Fort Smith residents from the TCE plume. He has said the TCE plume is stable. He has said a simple groundwater well ban would be a good solution. Noel and engineers hired by Whirlpool have assured us they have a good understanding of where the pollution is and how to treat it. He has said the company is interested in being a trusted partner in the pollution-mitigation process. Noel’s claims have, to be kind, bordered upon BS.

Noel’s claims aren’t the problem, however. We assert that the Board and top city staff should have known to be wary of Whirlpool assurances. Not only has the Fort Smith Board received pleas of caution from Keith and former Whirlpool employees, The City Wire has suggested on several occasions that Whirlpool can’t be trusted on this issue. Our February 2013 editorial on the groundwater ban issue noted: Whirlpool wants “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.”

Our March 31, 2013, editorial noted: “If we had gone along with the recommendation of city staff about the Whirlpool request, we’d never known the extent of the problem. We’d never (have) known the potential for cancer-causing vapors to rise up through home foundations and street-light poles and drainage culverts. … In addition to runoff from the plant, we might not have learned about toxic containers shipped to area landfills over the years. We might not have learned of the possibility of ongoing toxic leakage from the facility.”

Now, thanks to a recent Times Record story, we learn that at least two members of the Fort Smith Board were surprised by this new revelation of “highly impacted soils.”

“I was kind of surprised this didn’t come out during our study session considering it’s something they’ve known since December and January,” Director Kevin Settle said in the newspaper report. “We get this a month later. It kind of upsets me. I’m concerned we weren’t told as soon as we should have been told.”

Also upset was City Director Mike Lorenz.

“A little over a month ago, they were standing in front of us. They had the opportunity to tell us about this, but they did not. I really would like to know why.”

Well, Directors Lorenz and Settle, it kind of upsets us that you are either A) incredibly naïve about the world around you, or B) attempting to feign shock and puzzlement (“I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”). We would really like to know why two elected Board members of a city that is essentially a $200 million-plus corporation would be surprised, upset or puzzled by anything Whirlpool does or says with respect to its pollution problem.

To be fair, we realize the Board has little authority in this matter, but we sincerely hope the expectations of Lorenz and Settle with respect to Whirlpool’s transparency are wholly compartmentalized in their decision-making processes, and have absolutely nothing to do with their judgment on other matters of city business. If you think Whirlpool is going to be forthcoming on anything other than the time of day, then we’d like you to consider a crazy plan to build an almost $12 million water park without a fully-considered business model.

Oh, wait …