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Rodney Morris Koppers

Rodney Morris points out potential problem areas around the old Koppers wood treatment facility Thursday on Carbondale's northeast side.

CARBONDALE — Despite the announcement of an expanded cleanup effort by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, residents of Carbondale’s northeast side still have a lot of questions about contamination from a now-shuttered wood treatment facility.

In a news release sent in late March, the EPA announced it will take public comment until April 19 “on its proposal to expand the cleanup at Koppers Wood-Treating Facility.”

The soil was contaminated by several aspects of the operation, according to the EPA. 

"While the plant operated, handling and storage of chemicals caused spills, resulting in the pollution of soil, ground water (large reservoirs of water underground), creek mud and water within Glade Creek, Piles Fork Creek, Smith Ditch, Crab Orchard Creek and a small pond on the site," an EPA document related to the proposed cleanup says.

“Under EPA’s proposal, the current site owner, Beazer East Inc., would excavate contaminated soil from 8.4 acres of the property for disposal in an off-site landfill,” the news release announcing the proposal says.

“Another 7.4 acres of the property containing contaminated soil would be covered with a one-foot thick engineered clean soil cover.”

A technical document from the EPA further explaining the need for the cleanup says that “soil excavation and additional soil cover are proposed based on dioxin/furan concentrations above risk-based levels for environmental, or ecological exposure.”

The EPA monitored site owners Beazer East Inc. in a cleanup effort from 2004 to 2010 on the northeast side of Carbondale, and according to the news release, the site will continue being monitored for another 30 years.

Rodney Morris guided a reporter on a recent tour of his neighborhood, beginning with his home, which is within a quarter of a mile of the old Koppers property. He says he’s tried and tried to get grass to grow, and can’t get anything but moss to come up. He said the trees aren’t leafing out like others in the neighborhood.

Then, moving across the street to a flooded lot, he points behind it to a hill, behind which he said is the old Koppers Wood Treatment Facility.

Koppers stopped using creosote — which is derived from coal tar — in the early 1990s, but the EPA has been monitoring the land for soil contamination. In the mid-2000s it began to remediate an isolated portion for the property while neighborhood residents cried that there was more they were missing.

Morris said he’s been asking and asking for a broader, independent testing of the soil in his and other residents’ yards, but hasn’t gotten anywhere with the city, he said.

“Come out here and dig … and tell me it’s not contaminated,” he said. “Then what can I say?”

Morris said he thinks he knows the answer: The contamination is widespread, and no one wants to admit it, lest they have to do something about it, which would cost money.

As previously reported in The Southern in 2005, the U.S. and state EPAs tested neighborhood soil, followed by the city of Carbondale in 2006 and Beazer, Koppers’ parent company, with EPA oversight in 2012, according to that 2013 EPA document. The report indicated that, in all three instances, the soil was "not contaminated (with wood-treating chemicals)."

Morris said he knows of the previous city testing of the soil, but said, citing eyewitness accounts, he didn’t believe the samples to have been dug deep enough.

He said the EPA says things are fine, but he doesn’t trust that.

“Flint trusted the EPA,” he said, pointing out that Flint, Michigan, where significant water contamination was discovered in 2015, is in EPA Zone 5, the same as Carbondale.

Morris said he is convinced the pollution is more widespread than the city and the EPA are letting on. He points to his yard as an example. He believes chemicals are creeping from the central contamination area into the soil in the neighborhood.

The flooded lot across from his home, he said, dumps directly into a creek and drainage system that moves throughout the northeast side. He said the city and others have told him it drains away to the north instead of the south, which would run the potential of contaminating residential land. He said he has seen otherwise.

These concerns, Morris said, are why the community fought so hard against the Brightfields solar installation, which City Council voted down last year. He said he and others did not trust the developer when it said the project would not disturb contaminated soil.

Local community activist Melvin “Pepper” Holder said there are several problems he sees with the new push for remediation at the old Koppers site. For one, he said attempts to notify community members of the plan and the comment period was limited — he said residents generally have little knowledge about the current situation at the Koppers property or the history there.

Holder said he believes the responsibility is split between the city and Beazer for making the situation right. He said the city has a special responsibility to defend the residents while the company is responsible for reparations.

On top of this, Holder said the pollution is not limited to the immediate area where the work was done, which is where he has primarily seen plans to clean. He said the cleanup is good, but it's not enough.

“That’s what they should do, but (it) doesn’t stop there,” Holder said. “They’re only taking care of themselves and not taking care of people,” he said of the company.

In a perfect world, Holder said he would like to see Beazer assess the health of those potentially affected by the contamination, which he said is not limited to soil contamination, but also from the emissions put off by the plant over the decades. Then, he would like to see compensation for medical treatment and potentially, relocation, if a person’s home is in harm’s way.

Holder likened the creosote problem there to Agent Orange, the toxic herbicide used during the Vietnam War and that has led to serious medical problems for soldiers exposed to it. The U.S. military long denied a connection between Agent Orange and medical problems among veterans. However, it has since verified the connection.

Holder said he has been asked why he hasn’t sued Beazer himself if it’s so important. His answer is simple.

“I don’t have the education or the money to sue,” he said, adding the question of why the city won’t step up on his and others’ behalf.

Representatives from the EPA and Beazer could not be reached for comment.

A public comment hearing has been requested by the city and residents, however, the EPA has not yet announced a date.

Those interested in submitting comment are asked to send them by Friday, April 19 to Carolyn Bury via email at bury.carolyn@epa.gov or mail to: Carolyn Bury, Land and Chemicals Division, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 77 W. Jackson Blvd. LU-16J, Chicago, IL 60604.

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isaac.smith@thesouthern.com

618-351-5823

On Twitter: @ismithreports

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Isaac Smith is a reporter covering Jackson County.

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