Whirlpool pollution remediation efforts continue; high TCE levels remain in some areas

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,316 views 

The ongoing monitoring of cancer-causing chemicals in the ground from when Whirlpool operated a manufacturing plant in Fort Smith shows that the pollution plume is shrinking. Some hot spots remain, according to the firm hired by Whirlpool to keep tabs on the problem.

The publicly-held appliance manufacturer closed the plant at 6400 Jenny Lind Road 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, which sat on 153 acres.

Copenhagen, Denmark-based Ramboll was hired by Whirlpool to monitor the pollution and provide remediation plans and information to the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ). The company began remediation in October 2015 with injection wells around what was then the known plume.

The most recent 456-page report is based on groundwater monitoring conducted in April 2022 with the collection of samples from wells in the plume. The report indicates a reduction of “constituents of concern,” or COCs. The report also noted that samples show a “natural attenuation of TCE is occurring via chemical, geochemical and biological mechanisms in areas of the southern, northern and northeastern plumes.”

“In general, analytical data collected from the various treatment areas indicate that remediation treatment zones were successfully established and reducing environments exist that are capable of complete reductive dechlorination and abiotic degradation of Site COCs,” noted the report.

Continuing, the report noted: “Given the current deed restrictions for the Whirlpool property and offsite properties, there is no unacceptable risk to human health or the environment. Whirlpool has completed agreements with property owners where groundwater impacts have been characterized and these agreements include deed restrictions precluding the use of groundwater and access agreements to facilitate future investigation or monitoring, if required. Monitoring at the Site will continue in accordance with the RGWMP with the next groundwater monitoring event planned to occur in fall 2022. There are no unacceptable exposures onsite based upon indoor air monitoring and current warehousing operations.”

The report noted several areas around the plume where TCE was above remedial action levels or RALs. Ramboll said it is developing a “remedial plan” for areas where TCE levels remain high. Two plume areas required an additional plan.

“A Work Plan was submitted on June 6, 2022, for additional investigation east of the former Whirlpool property,” Ramboll noted in the report.

Jeff Dingman, deputy Fort Smith city administrator and point of contact for the city with ADEQ, said he is confident the remediation process is working.

“I think ADEQ’s team is performing good oversight and enforcement of this process” he said in a statement to Talk Business & Politics. “Based on seeing ADEQ’s positive feedback, I also think that Whirlpool’s environmental contractor Ramboll is sufficiently responsive in how it is monitoring, reporting, planning and remediating the site. I don’t think anyone expected this to be a quick process, and it isn’t, but I think the parties involved in remediation and oversight have a good process in place to ensure the site is handled appropriately.”

Talk Business & Politics obtained the Ramboll report through the city of Fort Smith. The ADEQ would not provide a report to Talk Business & Politics and did not respond to requests to speak to an ADEQ official about the Ramboll report and efforts to contain and reduce the pollution plume. There are no known efforts either by the city of Fort Smith or ADEQ to make the reports immediately available to the public when Ramboll submits them.

Sebastian County Assessor Zach Johnson said his office has not received updates on the remediation process, and property values remain lower following a 2013 assessment.

Notices went out from then Assessor Becky Yandell in 2013, informing residents within the contaminated neighborhood and “fringe” areas that their properties had been reassessed and were worth less than just a year or two previously. After reassessments in early 2013, total property values in the affected area declined by 41.28%, from a collective value of $9.831 million to $5.773 million. In January 2017, 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 TCE 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%. The spills affected 55 land parcels, including 49 residences and three commercial buildings. In May 2015, 48 of the 50 property owners in the original plume area had settled with Whirlpool. The remaining two were area nonprofits.

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 before the TCE pollution, which 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.

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

Link here for a PDF of the Ramboll report. It is a large file and may take time to download.