Cleanup of dangerous chemical continues near former Whirlpool plant

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,927 views 

Eight years after Whirlpool shuttered the doors, cleanup of a cancer-causing chemical continues at the former site of its 1.2 million square foot manufacturing plant on Jenny Lind.

The appliance manufacturer closed the plant in June 2012, moving most production jobs to Mexico. One year later, officials with Benton Harbor, Mich.-based Whirlpool admitted to leaking trichloroethylene (TCE), a cancer-causing chemical, into properties north of the Fort Smith plant.

In September 2016 Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) approved a Revised Groundwater Monitoring Plan (RGWMP) for the Whirlpool site in Fort Smith. In accordance with the RGWMP, an action plan is required whenever “expansion of the plume is confirmed by validated data indicating constituent concentrations exceeding remedial action levels (RALs) collected during two consecutive monitoring events,” paperwork from ADEQ states.

On Oct. 23, Ramboll US Corporation, on behalf of Whirlpool, submitted a 2019 Action Plan. This 2019 Action Plan was requested by ADEQ in a comment letter dated Aug. 28. The 2019 Action Plan summarized the investigation completed in June 2019; proposed supplemental investigation along the south property boundary; and summarized proposed supplemental remedial actions that consisted of a work plan for in-situ chemical reduction (ISCR).

On Dec. 19, Ramboll submitted a work plan in response to ADEQ’s conditional approval of their 2019 Action Plan. The 2019 Action Plan included supplemental remediation at one of the monitoring wells “consisting of injections of in-situ chemical reduction (ISCR) reagents to form a permeable reactive barrier (PRB) in the vicinity” of the well. ADEQ’s conditional approval of the 2019 Action Plan requested additional investigation in the area, letters provided by ADEQ said.

The ISCR injections to form the PRB were finished the week of Dec. 2, the letter stated. TCE concentrations in groundwater measurements at the site on in November 2018, April 2019 and October 2019 showed an increase in TCE concentrations in the groundwater. The increasing TCE concentrations were the basis for the 2019 Action.

The letter from Ramboll noted, “The TCE impacts in groundwater at (the site) do not represent a risk to human health or the environment but do indicate a recent plume expansion at this site.”

Groundwater samples from the newly installed monitoring wells are expected to be collected in March or April and that information will be presented in the 2020 semi-annual report, Ramboll said. On Jan. 14, ADEQ sent a letter to Ramboll saying that Northeast Supplemental Investigation Work Plan dated Dec. 19. DEQ was acceptable.

Whirlpool Vice President of Communication and Public Affairs Jeff Noel reported that settlement agreements had been reached with all affected property owners in the well-ban area whose properties were devalued by the Sebastian County tax assessor in April 2017.

Notices went out from the assessor in 2013 informing residents within the contaminated neighborhood and “fringe” areas their properties had been reassessed and in the county’s eyes, were worth less than just a year or two previously. After reassessments in early 2013, which began 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. In January 2017, Sebastian County Assessor Zach Johnson said a countywide appraisal in 2015 saw no bounce-back in property values from the previous assessment.

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 former Sebastian County Tax Assessor Becky Yandell, had land values reduced by 75% and structure values reduced by 25%. Twenty-six parcels were affected in the fringe area.

In May 2015, Noel told Talk Business & Politics 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.

The company sold the plant to Milwaukee, Wisc.-based Phoenix Investors in February 2017, but remains responsible for environmental remediation.

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