ADEQ reduces Whirlpool reporting requirement on Fort Smith contamination, property values remain down

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 478 views 

Whirlpool has received permission from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) to go from quarterly progress reports to semi-annual reports, according to Fort Smith Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman.

Dingman told Talk Business & Politics he recently confirmed the reporting change through Whirlpool’s environmental consultant. Talk Business & Politics had attempted to do the same, but the company has not responded to repeated requests for comment.

“They sampled the monitoring wells in November, and are preparing the (annual) report that’s due February 15. They did the soil vapor testing as well,” Dingman said, adding there will be a spring sampling around April and a fall sampling in November.

Dingman continued: “(Whirlpool) still must do their annual status report to ADEQ, which is also due February 15. After the annual report has been delivered, we will discuss with them a timeframe for providing a status update to the Board of Directors.”

The appliance manufacturer admitted in 2013 it had leaked trichloroethylene (TCE), a potentially cancer-causing chemical, into properties north of its former Fort Smith manufacturing facility.

Then-Sebastian County Assessor Becky Yandell sent out notices to residents within the contaminated neighborhood and “fringe” areas notifying them that their properties had been reassessed and in the county’s eyes, were worth less than just a year or two previously. After the reassessments in early 2013, which started following Whirlpool’s attempt to get the city of Fort Smith to pass an ordinance banning the drilling of groundwater wells in the neighborhood due to the contamination, total values of properties in the affected area declined by 41.28%, from a collective value of $9.831 million to $5.773 million.

Sebastian County Assessor Zach Johnson said a countywide appraisal in 2015 saw no bounce-back in property values from the previous assessment.

“Values remained with a negative effect,” Johnson told Talk Business & Politics, adding that it will likely remain that way “until we get a clean bill of health from the ADEQ” and sales in the area start reflecting a recovery.

Property owners filed lawsuits against Whirlpool shortly after the 2013 announcement. Homes sitting on the plume, also known as the primary area of contamination, had land values reduced by 75% and building values reduced by 50%. In all, the spills affected 55 parcels of land, including 49 residences and three commercial buildings. Properties just off the plume but bordering the plume zone, referred to as “fringe” properties by Yandell, had land values reduced by 75% and structure values reduced by 25%. Twenty-six parcels were affected in the fringe area.

In a two-year technical review report from early 2016, Jeff Noel, Whirlpool’s vice president of global communications and public affairs, wrote that in 2015 Whirlpool “reached agreements with 100% of residents in the well drilling ban area” and that as a result of those agreements, “the environmental class action lawsuit and most individual lawsuits against Whirlpool were dismissed.”

In May 2015, Noel told Talk Business & Politics that 48 of the 50 property owners in the original plume area had settled with the company. The remaining two were area non-profits. Homeowners in the settlement received 100% of their property devaluation plus 33% of the devaluated amount.

For example, one homeowner had a $90,000 property value prior to the TCE pollution, with that value lowered to $43,000 after the pollution was known. Whirlpool paid that person $64,000 to cover the $47,000 loss plus 33% of the loss. Fort Smith Director Tracy Pennartz told Talk Business & Politics she was not sure about the fairness of the settlements, but said “if they (homeowners) are satisfied, I’m satisfied.”

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