In the shadow of Lookout Mountain, this locked gate faces Wilson Road near 51st Street in Piney Woods. The former Velsicol property has since been vacated.Staff Photo by Tim Barber
The local Sierra Club Cherokee Group is joining with concerned citizens in Alton Park and Piney Woods to rally Saturday "for a more thorough, substantial and sustainable cleanup plan" for the old Velsicol Chemical plant site.
The group has until Feb. 11 to get community comments sent to state regulators, who've proposed accepting Velsicol's plan to fence in and place up to 18 inches of dirt over the 36-acre site, contaminated with years of residue from pesticide, herbicide and chemical making.
"The message to [state regulators] and to Velsicol ... is that the health of the community matters more than choosing the cheapest cleanup plan," said Elizabeth Tallman-Gazaway, chairwoman of the Sierra Club Cherokee Group and executive assistant and development director at the Bethlehem Center in Alton Park.
"The community wants a plan that better protects the health and safety of the neighborhoods as well as the ecology of Chattanooga Creek," she said. "The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation is being asked to hear the community and change its plan."
Rita Harris from the Sierra Club's national Environmental Justice Program in Memphis will be a speaker at the rally, as will longtime Alton Park environmental activist Milton Jackson. A former plant employee also is expected to speak, Tallman-Gazaway said.
In January, state officials told residents that their agreed-on plan with Velsicol does not call for any more contamination to be removed from the site. The addition of clean dirt and grass would cap the site, they said, and the property will remain fenced while groundwater pumping and monitoring will continue.
Groundwater contamination found at the site is treated with neutralizing chemicals and channeled to the Chattanooga sewer system, officials told the group.
Jackson, a resident of Alton Park who was active in pushing for the cleanup of Chattanooga Creek, asked Carl Blair, a representative of the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Control, to intervene.
With Blair's help, Jackson and the nearby residents won a skirmish with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to extend the comment period on the Velsicol plan from Jan. 21 to Feb. 11.
"We want the contaminated soil removed, then clean soil put in with a liner," Jackson said Thursday.
Gary Hermann, Velsicol's senior environmental projects manager, believes the cover-and-monitor plan is "protective of the human health and the environment."
"We've already removed a lot of material," he said. "We removed 24 million pounds of contaminated material and pumped and treated 7 million gallons of groundwater."
He said only about 100 pounds of contaminants were found in groundwater last year.
"That tells me the groundwater is pretty clean," Hermann said.
"This remedy seems woefully inadequate when much of the adjoining area is in the floodplain," she said.
IF YOU GO
* What: Rally for more cleanup of Velsicol site
* Who: South Chattanooga community and Sierra Club
* When: Saturday at noon
* Where: Bethlehem Community Center, 200 W. 38th St., Chattanooga
Source: Sierra Club Cherokee Group
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...