Claire Goforth for Al Jazeera America

Locals, activists slam EPA proposal to clean Georgia Superfund site

Federal agency reports community of slave descendants on nearby island exposed to pollution from site

BRUNSWICK, Georgia — An Environmental Protection Agency proposal to clean up an 801-acre Superfund site in Brunswick, Georgia has come under scrutiny, with activists saying it is insufficient to protect locals already exposed to pollution — including a small Geechee community of Creole-speaking descendants of slaves on Sapelo Island, 25 miles from the site.

Honeywell International, which purchased the site in 1998 after LCP Chemical filed for bankruptcy, reports that 225,000 tons of contaminated soil and material and 13 acres of contaminated marshland have been removed from the area. However, unsafe levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury, lead and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) remain present.

The EPA’s 1994 target action for total PCB levels on the site was 25 parts per million (ppm). A 2014 public health assessment of the site by federal public health organization the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) found that six half-acre grids exceeded this concentration and 36 half-acre grids had PCB concentrations of 1 to 24 ppm.

The EPA presented its proposed plan (PDF) at a public meeting in Brunswick on Dec. 4. The plan calls for three remedies: removing sediment from 7 acres, capping 6 acres “with layers of sand, silt, gravel and rock,” and covering 11 acres with a layer of sand. In all, roughly 24 acres will be remedied.

Daniel Parshley, executive director of environmental watchdog Glynn Environmental Coalition, said, “There is a long history of ignoring how big the site is and lowballing the acres.” The coalition recommends removal of 81 of the most contaminated acres.

The EPA holds that the contamination levels do not justify dredging and removing additional acreage because of concerns about disturbing the marshland. However, Parshley and Peter DeFur of consulting firm Environmental Stewardship Concepts were quick to point out that marshland restoration has become a common practice.

According to the ATSDR, exposure to PCB concentration levels exceeding 1 to 5 ppm for children and 10 to 25 ppm for adults may cause harmful effects, including altered hormone levels, impaired neurological development, low birth weight and damage to skin, liver, pancreas and cardiovascular systems. It has also been linked to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

The ATSDR reports that PCBs persist in the environment and find their way into humans through the consumption of small organisms and fish, which take contaminated sediment into their bodies. PCBs will continue to accumulate in fish and wildlife regardless of efforts to cap or cover them unless the contaminated material is removed. The EPA reports that PCBs in fish, “can reach levels hundreds of thousand[s] of times higher than the levels in water.”

The ATSDR tested nine of the 47 Geechees on Sapelo Island and found that the median person had higher blood levels of PCBs, including Aroclor 1268 — a chemical released specifically at the LCP site, according to the ATSDR — than 95 percent of the general population. It determined that the levels were caused by the LCP Superfund site, primarily through consumption of contaminated fish, and said that the contamination from the site may be spreading and fish consumption guidelines may need to be expanded. The island is well outside the area governed by such guidelines.

DeFur said the particular type of PCB found in the subjects’ bloodstreams, Aroclor 1268, is so distinctive, it’s like a fingerprint.

None of the EPA reports on the site reveal the source of Aroclor 1268. Brunswick attorney Robert Killian, who represented property owners, Glynn County (which encompasses Brunswick) and employees of LCP in suits against Allied Chemical — now Honeywell — beginning in the mid-1990s, said it came from Honeywell, which produces products and technologies for a variety of industries, including chemical, automotive, transportation and aerospace.

Killian said the suits ultimately settled for $50 million split evenly between homeowners and the county.

John Morris, project manager for Honeywell, said by email, “The specific PCB [Aroclor] 1268 was only used by Allied for approximately seven years in Brunswick. PCB 1268 was used in many different applications, and it is found in the environment throughout the world.”

Jim Brown, program manager for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s hazardous waste corrective action program, pointed out that Aroclor 1268 was used in marine paint. DeFur said, however, that Aroclor 1268 was not widely used in marine paint and its use was confined to military and some merchant marine applications. Chapter 5 of the ATSDR toxicological profile for PCBs states that Monsanto, which produced 99 percent of the PCBs used by U.S. industry, ceased production of Aroclor 1268 in 1971.

Morris said the allocation of cleanup costs among “potentially responsible parties” has not been determined.

Killian, who attended the Dec. 4 meeting, said residents became hostile after learning what the plan entailed. He said that there hadn’t been a cost-benefit analysis of the plan and was concerned about the transparency of the drafting process. “The hearing was the first time that the public had the chance to speak,” he said, adding that he believed negotiations over the past 20 years have favored Allied and Honeywell rather than locals potentially affected by the site.

The proposed plan is one of six remedies the EPA considered, ranging from taking no action to removing 48 acres at an estimated cost of $64.8 million. With an estimated cost of $28.6 million, the plan is the second-cheapest option that involved taking any action to clean up the site.

Asked to explain its reasoning for choosing this cleanup plan, the EPA did not mention whether or to what extent cost factored in its decision.

Brown said the proposed cleanup is sufficient and pointed out that the site will continue to be monitored and further cleanup may be required if the contamination persists.

But many believe the plan doesn’t go far enough to protect the local population.

J.R. Grovner, a father of two and a native and current resident of Sapelo Island, said that while the island’s inhabitants became aware of the fish contamination after the ATSDR testing, there has been little to no change in their consumption habits.

The residents of the Geechee community, often called the Gullah-Geechee, who remain on the island and try to keep up the traditions passed down for over 200 years. Hunting, fishing, faith and family make up the cornerstones of their community.

Grovner said most residents consume at least one meal, at times as many as several, of local seafood per week. It’s the way of life on the tiny island, which is accessible only by boat. “A situation like that, I guess we get the end of the stick,” he said.

A multiagency 2009 study of dolphins around Brunswick and Sapelo Island found that they had as much as 10 times the levels of PCBs, including Aroclor 1268, than dolphins from any location previously tested. PCBs, which are found in the sediment on the site, tend to accumulate in top-level predators like dolphins — and humans — because they are stored in fat and persist up the food chain.

ATSDR researchers revealed their study on the high PCB levels of nine islanders at a Sept. 3 meeting at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) campus in Chamblee, Georgia, that was attended by representatives from several Georgia and federal government agencies but was not open to the public.

Brown, who was in attendance, said the ATSDR conclusions regarding the spread of PCBs from the site, the sufficiency of fish consumption advisories and the source of the contamination of the residents of Sapelo were not supported by the data presented.

A fact sheet added in January to a website Honeywell maintains about the LCP site states, “The [ATSDR] study concluded that there is no demonstrated link between Sapelo Island and any contaminants discharged at the LCP site.” However, the presentation from the Sept. 3 meeting, where the interim results of that study, which has not yet been issued in its entirety, were discussed, states, “Residents of Sapelo Island have been exposed to specific PCB also found at the LCP site.”

The fact sheet also alleges that a Monsanto plant in Anniston, Alabama, “released thousands of pounds of PCB 1268 into the air over a 40 year period,” noting that the plant is “upwind from Brunswick.” Anniston is approximately 340 miles northwest of Brunswick.

A representative from Monsanto responded to the allegation, “We are confident that no significant or even detectable amounts of PCBs could have blown from Anniston, Alabama, more than 300 miles away, to Brunswick, Georgia.”

Additionally, there is debate over whether the current fish consumption guidelines protect residents of the Brunswick area.

In 1999 the Glynn County Health Department, in cooperation with the ATSDR, tested 316 individuals through interviews, food diaries and urine to determine the local residents’ rates of consumption of fish and wild game and develop the consumption guidelines. Results from target group of 211 people who reported consuming local seafood and wild game from affected areas were compared with those of a control group of 105 who reported that they did not consume seafood and wild game from affected waters. Only 4 percent of the target group were African-American.

African-Americans account for 26 percent of the population of Glynn County and 40 percent of the population within 4 miles of the site. In its 2014 public health assessment for the site, the ATSDR stated that “African-Americans are underrepresented in the Brunswick fish study” and because of that and the likely frequency and amounts of their consumption of fish, the “results of the Brunswick fish study should not be applied to African-Americans in the Brunswick area.”

In the target group, 101 people reported the kind of fisher they were; just one was a subsistence fisher, and only three were commercial fishers. Accordingly, the health assessment states that the fish consumption guidelines do not necessarily apply to subsistence or commercial fishers.

The public has until Feb. 2, 2015, to submit comments to the EPA regarding the proposed plan. After that, the EPA will make a final decision and “negotiate a cleanup agreement with parties responsible for the pollution, which will then design and implement the cleanup, with EPA oversight.”

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