Pipes on top of the ground are seen Wednesday along Wilson Road across the street from the Emma Wheeler Homes in Alton Park. A group of activists expressed concern that water is being pumped from the former Velsicol chemical plant into the sewer system, but Chattanooga Public Works officials say they are temporarily rerouting sewers in the area so the original lines can be dried out and relined.
The story so far
• Velsicol is placing a soil barrier atop it old plant site in Alton Park.
• A city contractor is rerouting and relining sewer lines in the community.
• Neighbors are worried about pollution.
Sources: Chattanooga, Velsicol
As Velsicol places a dirt cap on its groundwater-polluted vacant plant site in Alton Park, community leaders voiced concern about more than a mile of plastic piping stretching around the rear of the former chemical plant site.
"We are concerned that all this piping is coming out of Velsicol and drawing water from their retention ponds into the sewer," said Chester Heathington, standing along Wilson Road and near Emma Wheeler Homes.
"And we are worried they are putting toxins in the Tennessee River," he said.
But city officials said the mile or more of black piping above the ground is a temporary rerouting of sewage so 3,000 feet of sewer lines buried 16 to 22 feet below ground can be relined to prevent more pollution.
"It's not anything where we're causing a problem or doing anything illegal," said Jerry Stewart, Chattanooga director of waste resources.
Stewart said he understands the community's sensitivity to pollution worries after they have spent years fighting waste concerns there.
"That's why now we're going to be putting out some signs to let people know we are just relining the sewers," he said.
The 36-acre Velsicol site is known to hold 36 carcinogenic pollutants in amounts above allowable industrial screening levels, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency documents.
State officials last year granted Velsicol a permit modification allowing the company to cover the site with a 12- to 24-inch "vegetative soil barrier" intended to help Velsicol prepare the property it hopes to sell to another manufacturer or possibly to Chattanooga.
As part of Velsicol's continuing permit, Velsicol pumps contaminated groundwater to the sewer system, according to Stewart. That contaminated groundwater, along with any stormwater from the property, is now being moved in the bypass piping while the sewers are being relined, Stewart said.
The contaminated groundwater has not been a problem for the sewage treatment plant, Stewart said.
The sewer relining is part of the $251 million-plus agreement reached last month between the city and EPA to improve the city's aging and flawed combined sewer and stormwater system. The citywide system has dumped more than 354 million gallons of raw sewage into the Tennessee River since 2005.
Stewart said relining 3,000 feet of the sewer lines in Alton Park will cost about $630,000.
"It's costing us $210 a foot. If we were to dig it up and replace it, it would cost about $700 a foot," Stewart said.
Gary Hermann, Velsicol senior environmental projects manager, said the company over two years will put more than 50,000 cubic yards — more than 3,000 dump truck loads —- of "imported clean soil" on the former Velsicol plant site.
The plant closed in 2007, but for decades its workers made a number of chemicals, including pesticides and herbicides. Former workers have said many leaking barrels of materials were left there for years.
Hermann said Velsicol hauled away 24 million pounds of polluted material from 33 areas of the site before beginning the dirt-covering process.
Eventually, he said, the company will sow grass there, and Velsicol's effort will total $2.5 million.
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, ...