CARBONDALE — Wednesday’s community Q&A with the Environmental Protection Agency started on the wrong foot and never seemed to find the right foot.
The meeting was requested in April after the EPA opened a community comment period regarding a “significant difference” to the original Koppers site cleanup plan. The contaminated site sits on the city’s northeast side directly adjacent to a predominantly black neighborhood.
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From 1902 to 1991 the Koppers plant treated lumber with the carcinogen creosote to produce railroad ties and other products. The plant employed a predominantly black workforce for much of its history.
The chemical has been linked to cancer. The site has been under scrutiny from the EPA and the community for decades. A cleanup process was begun in 2004, and a recent announcement from the agency said more cleanup was needed.
“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,” a 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,” according to the release.
In short, a greater area needs remediation work than originally thought.
A technical document from the EPA further explained the need for the cleanup: More contaminants were discovered.
“Soil excavation and additional soil cover are proposed based on dioxin/furan concentrations above risk-based levels for environmental, or ecological exposure,” the document reads.
Wednesday’s meeting was meant to answer questions about this new process, but quickly devolved into combative postures on both sides.
The comment period for the new proposal ends June 21, and remediation plans will be finalized after.
The evening started with EPA Community Involvement Coordinator Rafael Gonzalez addressing the audience of about 50 residents, saying that he had heard complaints that residents didn't know about the meeting. He explained that the EPA went further than they normally do to advertise the event, taking out five ads in The Southern.
The EPA took out four 4-by-5-column-inch ads in the classified section of the newspaper over a period of weeks.
His tone did not sit well with those in the crowd. Many said they felt it was condescending.
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“You are starting this off on the wrong foot,” Nick Smaligo, a community activist, called out.
A slide presentation of the history of the site and its cleanup was made with questions scheduled to follow. But questions came early and often.
Community members asked why new toxins were found after the initial testing was done.
Carolyn Bury, the project’s manager, said when she took over the project, she saw data that gave her pause and wanted to investigate more.
“I think that something slipped through the cracks ,” she said of the time period when the project was transitioned from state to federal agencies.
Specific questions about how the EPA decided to clean up more land and how the increased levels of contaminants were found were emailed to Gonzalez Thursday, but went unanswered.
There was little new information presented during the Wednesday meeting, frustrating some residents. Both sides seemed to be talking past each other, the EPA coming to the debate with science and statutes, while residents and community members brought ethical and historical concerns.
Community activist Pepper Holder reminded officials from the EPA and Beazer of the families affected not just by chemicals like creosote, but also from falling debris from smokestacks. Holder recalled his grandmother telling him to go get the laundry off the line before the clouds of debris got to her yard.
All of this history added up to mountains of suspicion and deeply held beliefs that the contaminated area extends much farther than the fenced-off perimeter of the former Koppers campus.
Before the meeting started, Rodney Morris, who lives near the contaminated site, responded to a question about what he thought about the latest meeting and newest developments.
“I think it’s a joke,” he said. Morris told the panel that he was glad they were there and doing more remediation, but he still had doubts.
“Test south of the fence,” Morris told the officials. He and many others want a thorough testing of the soil in the northeast Carbondale neighborhood.
During the presentation, Bury explained that testing had been done in the past, not only by the EPA but also by the city of Carbondale. Both tests came back negative for contaminants. Morris and others retorted that the tests had only sampled soil less than 2 feet down.
The sentiment was that if contamination had gone deep enough to contaminate well water some 50 years ago, as environmental activist Charlie Howe pointed out, then wouldn’t it be reasonable to believe contamination would be found deeper than 20 inches down in the neighborhood?
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Beazer and EPA representatives gave few concrete answers to that assertion, beyond their belief that the testing already done was enough.
Residents said people are still dying of cancer many believe to be linked to exposure to creosote and dioxane from the Koppers plant. Activist Clare Killman asked if the EPA cared about the people living there less than the wildlife at Koppers.
Bury said, “Of course not.” But, she said, they were doing the best they could with the data they had.
“But people are getting sick,” Killman shot back.
“People get sick and die of cancer,” Bury said in reply.
Gonzalez then jumped in the fray. He said community doctors are supposed to report multiple suspicious diagnoses to the local health department, which then takes it to the state, and up the chain to federal agencies. He said the EPA does not answer questions about health.
Bury had previously told the crowd that it is not EPA’s job to correct past exposure, but instead to deal with the contamination that is currently there.
And this is the disconnect. Those in attendance wanted some form of restorative justice combined with measures above and beyond the normal scope to ease their fears that they are living on tainted ground.
“How can we ever trust you,” Smaligo asked.
“If the land is not contaminated, what can we say,” Morris said. But, he and others answered the question. They believe that the EPA and Beazer do not want to do deeper testing because of a fear — or knowledge — of what they might find.
Echoing the sentiment of misplaced trust, Morris said Carbondale sits within the same EPA regional authority as Flint, Michigan, where massive water contamination slipped by governing bodies, poisoning thousands.
Smaligo calmly told Bury that he understood her defensiveness, and that he believes she is working hard. However, he added that no one was able to ask the right questions about this situation. Everyone was pointing a finger saying it is not their job to fix this, or remedy that.
“It’s no one’s job to deal with the history,” Smaligo said.
“I recognize your cynicism,” Bury said, asking Smaligo to acknowledge that some good has been done at the Koppers site. He agreed that there had been, but did not back down from his point.
“Since you are throwing bullets,” Gonzalez interjected, talking to Smaligo. He had a point of his own.
“You are part of the system,” Gonzalez said, pointing out that Smaligo and others had gone to school and participated in the American system of governing, something Smaligo said he didn’t deny.
In the end, Gonzalez told him and the others to “tell your local representative” of the injustices.
This got a roar from the crowd.
A comment from Morris earlier in the meeting echoed strongly by the end.
“You are saying you’ve done one thing,” Morris said. “We are saying we need more."
The meeting ended softly, with the announcement that when Beazer, the EPA and the city come to an agreement, construction and remediation would take about three months.
On Twitter: @ismithreports
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