Two months before completion of a health risk study on Velsicol pollution in South Chattanooga, state regulators say the company doesn't need to do any more cleanup but should put a deeper layer of dirt on its former pesticide and herbicide manufacturing site on Central Avenue.
The permit modification by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation angers people who live and work nearby.
"I'm very disappointed," said community organizer Elizabeth Tallman-Gazaway.
"I don't think the final permit is at all protective of health, and my understanding was that they would slow down the permit while they are still working on the health risk assessment," said Gazaway, executive assistant and development director of Bethlehem Center on 38th Street, about 10 blocks from the plant.
"I don't know why Velsicol is in such a hurry to get out of town," she said.
The site is known to hold 36 carcinogenic pollutants in amounts above allowable industrial screening levels. Aside from the permit modification, the overall state permit that governs the site is due to expire in September.
State officials said the permit modification is intended to help Velsicol begin work on the 36-acre property it hopes to sell to another manufacturer or possibly to Chattanooga.
But residents want the property cleaned up, not covered up. They worry that the modified permit will allow the company to fulfill its legal responsibility and walk away before the full extent of health risks is revealed.
Final work on the site is not likely to begin until next year, and information from the health risk assessment could result in further permit modifications, said spokeswomen for TDEC and the state health department.
The plant closed in 2007. Gary Hermann, Velsicol's senior environmental projects manager, said Velsicol already has hauled away 24 million pounds of polluted material from 33 sites.
Hermann won’t name prospective buyers, though he said Velsicol has not had specific discussions with the city.
“But it’s always looked like it would make a good fit. The city owns the [adjacent] Tennessee Products site, and it’s about the same size,” he said.
Tennessee Products and part of what now is Velsicol were where coal was burned to make coke, a hot-burning foundry fuel used in the steel industry.
For decades, the coke plant ditched excess coal tar, a byproduct, in Chattanooga Creek, where it settled to the creek bed and its surrounding flood plain. The creek empties into the Tennessee River.
For much of the past decade, about five miles of the creek was a national Superfund site. Some 108,000 tons of coal tar has been scooped away in a nearly $30 million creek cleanup.
The Tennessee Products site isn’t considered a national priority Superfund site. Both properties remain under state regulatory supervision with deed restrictions and monitoring requirements that cost owners or the responsible companies still in business thousands of dollars a year.
After TDEC received about 1,000 comments and petition signatures seeking more environmental cleanup, regulators with the Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste Management did toughen the permit modification Velsicol first sought about two years ago.
The change raised the level of the clean dirt cap from 12 to 18 inches up to two feet. It requires monthly, rather than quarterly inspections of site fencing and security. And there could be more to come.
In January 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Justice Department announced a settlement with the American International Specialty Lines Insurance Co. The agreement obtained $42.5 million for environmental investigation and cleanup at seven former Velsicol sites. It included the South Chattanooga plant site’s Residue Hill, a dome-shaped dump capped and regulated by the state for decades.
An American International Specialty insurance policy had been issued to Fruit of the Loom, which with related company NWI Land Management Corp. bought out Velsicol in 1986. But in 1999, Fruit of the Loom and NWI went bankrupt and immediately stopped indemnifying Velsicol.
“There is still an opportunity for another modification if it’s deemed to be appropriate,” state health department spokeswoman Andrea Turner said.
Turner said Bonnie Bashor, the state’s director of environmental epidemiology, told her the health assessment’s first draft is “two months away,” and it is “premature” to provide details of findings to date.
“She [Bashor] encouraged people to look forward to public meetings they’ll likely have about the health assessment, as well as encouraging people to consider submitting comments when we get to that time,” Turner said.
The request for the assessment came from Carl Blair, with the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Tallman-Gazaway and community activist Milton Jackson, sought Blair’s help from when they believed state officials were ignoring community protests.
Residents fear that Velsicol, owned by a company in bankruptcy, may not be able to take part in any eventual fix.
TDEC spokeswoman Tisha Calabrese-Benton said Velsicol must receive the agency’s approval of an engineering plan before cleanup work can begin under the modified permit.
“It would be next year before they could bring in clean soil even if they start preparations now. We wouldn’t want them to bring in soil late this year and not be able to vegetate it because we don’t want it to erode,” she said.
Calabrese-Benton said Velsicol’s overall permit, which outlines the company’s requirements and responsibilities on the site, is set to expire in September, but it will not be reissued until the health assessment is completed.
If the health assessment is delayed, the present permit requirements will remain in force until a new one is issued, she said.
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, ...