Whirlpool officials, Fort Smith Board discuss pollution remediation work

by The City Wire staff (info@thecitywire.com) 19 views 

Officials involved in the remediation efforts of the shuttered Whirlpool manufacturing facility gave an update to the Fort Smith Board of Directors on efforts to clean up a plume of potentially cancer-causing trichloroethylene (TCE) in the area in and around its closed factory.

Jeff Noel, Whirlpool's corporate vice president of communications and public affairs, told the Board at a Tuesday (July 8) study session held at the Fort Smith Senior Activity Center on Cavanaugh Road that the company had made meaningful progress on remediation during the last six months.

"You'll see that we have, I think, advanced the ball very nicely in terms of the remediation," he said.

In all, Noel told the Board that more than 25,000 gallons from two chemical oxidation treatments had been pumped into the plume at about 100 different "access points."

"We worked with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, based on your direction, to add that, if you will, to the RADD to make sure we were address injections in the neck of the plume itself. And we think over the last several months, that level of activity has been very, very effective."

Noel said the last treatments completed during the last week of May and the first weeks of June were still being analyzed for effectiveness before moving forward with further treatments. In all, he said more than 200 holes have been punched in the site.

Project Manager Mike Ellis of ENVIRON, the environmental consulting firm hired by Whirlpool to deal with the TCE plume and remediation of the site, said his firm's ongoing monitoring of the site had showed improvements since chemical oxidation treatments had begun.

"You'll see that the TCE in the groundwater plume, on average, that trend is continuing to decrease," he said. "We will see and have seen fluctuations in the concentrations of TCE in the groundwater. We see increases and decreases. What we're referring to is looking at the data package as a whole (and) average concentrations continue to decrease."

Ellis said ENVIRON expected continued "fluctuations in the plume," adding that exact boundaries of the plume could change based on concentrations of TCE near the site.

In questioning from the Board, Vice Mayor Kevin Settle asked for improved communication, quoting an April 24 memo from the ADEQ first reported by The City Wire that detailed "an area of highly impacted soils to as deep as 25' – 30' have been located at the northwest corner of the Whirlpool building … "

"When you're talking about communication, what I would like to see is if you know something's coming up, give us a heads up. Because this came up right after a meeting you had with us and I would have rather had it as a heads up than finding out about it after the fact."

Noel agreed with Settle's statement and said the company would work to better inform the Board of its meetings and interactions with ADEQ. After the meeting, Noel did clarify that while the memo in question discussed "source removal" of some of the contaminated soil, it did not necessarily imply that the company was going to be actually be removing any dirt from the site.

"The way I read the letter, and I think the way Mike (Ellis) reads the letter, is what we need to do is … how are we proposing to go in and collect the sampling in that area and then get the report and submit it to ADEQ about what it is that we would propose to do. And I don't think there was anything in those letters that said ADEQ is expecting soil removal or ADEQ is expecting no soil removal. What they're looking for is the right science, the right best practice remedy and the best approach for dealing with the site which is what we're compiling now. It would be premature to say what we're doing until we get all the information, get the report and spend some time on it. … That's the way we read it and I really honestly believe that's how ADEQ views it."

Asked by the Board about how ADEQ views the current efforts by Whirlpool to remediate the site, Deputy Director Ryan Benefield said the agency thought the process was properly progressing.

"I do believe we're getting the information (we need). If we had not been getting (the information), you'd be seeing more letters than that stack where we were asking for more information."

Noel also told the Board about the settlement of the class action lawsuit, which would only pay out damages caused by the reduction of property values that occurred in 2013 as a result of the TCE contamination.

Property owners eligible to participate in the settlement must live within an area bounded by Ingersoll and Brazil Avenues, Jenny Lind Road and Ferguson Street with those property owners receiving "either an amount equal to the devaluation estimated by the County assessor or the devaluation as determined by an independent property appraiser," a flyer available to residents Tuesday said.

Residents who live outside the area will receive $5,000 "and possibly more in the future, if TCE is detected above threshold levels in groundwater beneath their property."

Not included, Noel said, were alleged medical claims, which could still be brought against the company in court at a later time should residents choose to sue for damages.

City Director Pam Weber told her fellow Board members that while the settlement may be viewed as a resolution for the residents harmed by the devaluation of their properties, it was not the end of their suffering.

"While I'm glad that a settlement is in the works for the property owners, I want the Board to be aware that doesn't solve the future issue of that property and what's going to happen to it in the future and the fact that it's not going to appreciate, in my opinion. It's still going to be a fiscal problem even after the settlement for those residents."

Noel said redevelopment of the site was moving forward, with a purchase agreement now in place for part of the property that he expects to close within the next 45 to 60 days. Spartan Logistics announced its plans to acquire the site's the almost 620,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution facility.

The company said its operations in Fort Smith could total 200 employees once the space is fully in use.

Noel himself did not confirm that Spartan would purchase the site, but said it was a "big step forward." He also said Whirlpool was in fruitful discussions with a possible buyer for other parts of the property, but declined to disclose what type of company may purchase the site.

"I don't want to speak on their behalf, but what we have said from the beginning is that we anticipate that this will be some type of a mixed use development. There will probably be some strategic demolition and some new construction. So long term, because it's a long term plan, it's probably going to be industry, light industry, technology. I suspect that we'll have mixed use development in that area, but I can't speak on their behalf until we know who it's going to be and we know what they're proposing to do. But that's fairly consistent with what we're hearing."

While Whirlpool did initially plan to sell off all of the property, Noel did say that the company would be retaining a portion of property in order to maintain the ability to monitor the site even after remediation efforts have ended.