Toxic chemicals from the Agrico Chemical Co. Superfund site might have seeped into local drinking water and will remain in the area`s underground aquifer for decades.
The two principal companies responsible for the Superfund site are Agrico, the last operator of the plant, and Conoco Inc., current owner of the 35-acre site, located northwest of Brown Barge Middle School near Interstate 110.
But three other companies shared liability for the site: DuPont, The Williams Cos. and Freeport-McMoRan Inc.
Together, they convinced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that:
Pumping out the plume of contaminated groundwater and treating it would cause more harm than good.
Allowing the pollution to remain in the underground aquifer for decades would not contaminate public wells.
Allowing the plume to discharge into Bayou Texar would not harm the already troubled waterway.
The Agrico property was officially declared a Superfund site on Oct. 4, 1989. At that time, the five companies with responsibility for cleaning the site entered into agreements with EPA to begin studying the extent of the pollution and developing possible cleanup remedies.
The companies were responsible for doing the research and developing a cleanup plan. EPA`s role was to oversee the companies` efforts.
We are pleased EPA has become dependent on us -working diligently to keep decision making in the companies` hands, said Rich Bartelt, a vice president of one of the companies` consulting firms, Geraghty & Miller Inc., during an August 1992 meeting.
The companies` goal, as revealed by thousands of pages of documents, was to use studies and design computer models to avoid an expensive groundwater cleanup. Their research avoided evidence suggesting the Agrico plume has been contaminating drinking water supplies for decades, even though company consultants knew the City of Pensacola had been forced in 1958 to close a well on 12th Avenue because of it.
Never any doubt in my mind that the Agrico plume was clearly the proximate cause of the shutdown, Conoco`s project manager, Jay Christopher, wrote in a Feb. 3, 1992, e-mail.
In one instance, DuPont officials edited out portions of a crucial 1993 study of Bayou Texar that offered evidence that high fluoride levels in bayou sediments were attributable to the Agrico plant – proof the plume was already affecting the bayou.
Cynthia Green, a DuPont program manager, crossed out the section. In the margins she wrote, Kills us,” records show.
The companies already had evidence that, if left untreated, the plume would dump tons of fluoride into the bayou.
In a June 1992 memorandum marked Confidential!, Michael McDonald, a private consultant for Conoco, informed the company that an estimated 1.3 million pounds of fluoride would enter the bayou over 75 years if the monitor-only scenario was approved.
McDonald, with McDonald Morrissey Associates Inc. in Reston, Va., could not be reached for comment.
Green also edited out another sentence in the report that stated the groundwater contamination from Agrico extends downstream to include the bayou midchannel. The sentence is marked out of the draft report, and Green wrote No! in the margins.
The final report, submitted in May 1993 to federal regulators, concluded the plume was limited to the upper bayou, and the discharge zone of the Agrico plume appears to be well-defined and limited.
A limited action plan was approved by federal regulators in August 1994 after extensive review. Conoco and Agrico attorneys and executives defend the cleanup plan, which calls for allowing the toxic chemicals in the plume to naturally filter out through the ground over 70 years before discharging into Bayou Texar.
The attorneys declined to discuss specifics regarding the groundwater cleanup because Conoco and Agrico are involved in a $500 million lawsuit that alleges the underground plume from the Agrico site has damaged properties in its path and that the companies misled federal regulators into approving an ineffective cleanup plan.
Conoco will not comment on pending litigation, except to deny any allegation of impropriety or wrongdoing, said Reginald Bouthillier Jr., a Tallahassee lawyer representing Conoco.
EPA is concerned
Evidence the companies and their consultants might have designed studies and research to avoid cleaning the groundwater concerns the EPA official who oversaw the cleanup investigation in the early 1990s.
I think those things you`re finding in the record are not surprising, but it does sadden me because I thought we were working in good faith, said Patsy Goldberg, the former EPA remedial project manager, in a recent interview.
Goldberg, who now works on military cleanup sites for EPA, said all reports, studies and computer models regarding the Agrico plume were thoroughly reviewed. The assertion by one of the consultants that EPA was dependent on the companies is poppycock, she said.
She said, however, she is concerned about evidence that the Agrico plume could have contaminated ECUA wells with radium – a known carcinogen linked to bone and nasal cancers.
I do remember the radium was not the thing we focused on, she said. We knew it was there. It consistently showed up in the groundwater. But I do remember it was in the background.
If radium from the Agrico plume has become a health concern, or there`s evidence the cleanup remedy is not working due to incorrect data supplied by the companies, then EPA should conduct a thorough review of the cleanup plan, she said.
If they pulled the wool over our eyes, we can go back and look at it, she said.
In May 1989, Christopher, the Conoco project manager, met with EPA representatives to lay out the case against cleaning the groundwater plume. The meeting went well, he reported in an internal memorandum, and EPA officials were receptive to the idea that groundwater restoration was not necessary.
Cleaning the plume was one alternative that the companies wanted to avoid, records show.
Consultants designed studies to support the no-action alternative for groundwater, reported Geraghty & Miller, one of four consulting firms working at the site.
Stephanie Gordinier, The Williams Cos.` senior environmental engineer, directed consultants at Woodward-Clyde Consulting to limit conversations with federal and state regulators to information gathering, she wrote in a March 1, 1993, memo to the firm. Divulgence of any information concerning the company`s strategy is strictly prohibited.
Officials with The Williams Cos. declined to comment for this story.
EPA was not privy to the strategy of the companies, but it did have a lot of problems with the research they and their consultants were conducting.
At first, the regulators ripped the consultants` work and ordered them to redo almost everything.
I have never been associated with a report so poor-ly received by an Agency, wrote Rusty Walker, Freeport-McMoRan`s environmental services manager in a June 1991 letter to executives at The Williams Cos.
But that EPA rejected the research in its entirety was not what bothered Walker the most, records show.
My biggest concern … is the strong implication in the comments from the hydrogeologist that some form of groundwater remediation may be in order, he wrote.
Freeport-McMoRan officials declined to comment for this story.
Federal regulators were particularly concerned about evidence that the toxic plume had been in public water wells for decades.
Goldberg, the EPA remedial project manager, wrote to the companies in 1990 that she could not rule out that the Agrico site had contributed to the contamination of the ECUA well at F & Scott streets south of the Superfund site.
Goldberg noted that studies by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1972 had indicated that contamination originating south of the (Agrico) site would be captured by certain public water supply wells located south in that direction, and that contamination from this site may have entered the capture zones of the public water supply wells. To resolve whether there is any impact on public water supply wells to the south from this site, additional information is required.
But the information-gathering was in the hands of the companies.
It is too early to tell which remedial alternative will be most appropriate, but I have all members of the project team working toward a no-action alternative for groundwater remediation, wrote Andrew Miller, a Geraghty & Miller associate in a January 1991 letter to officials at Conoco and Freeport-McMoRan.
The companies and their consultants already knew that EPA`s insistence on pumping out the plume was not only possible, it might be needed to protect the region`s drinking water supply.
In Miller`s letter, he noted that groundwater remediation may be required based on the nature and extent of the plumes and the dependence of the area on the Sand-and-Gravel Aquifer. He then wrote his clients, The project team will pursue every option available to potentially justify no action for groundwater.
Federal and state regulators were critical of the companies` efforts.
EPA hydrologist Lee Thomas, in an August 1991 report, chastised consultants for not properly delineating the plume boundaries and for failing to sample all the contaminants known to be in the plume, most notably radium.
The issue of radionuclides at the site has not been resolved, he wrote in a review of the consultants` groundwater investigation. Agrico had promised to demonstrate that their process could not have resulted in the contamination of groundwater by radionuclides. However, this information has not been forthcoming. Sampling for radionuclides at the site should be conducted in groundwater samples at this site.
He also criticized leaders of the companies for refusing to conduct pilot studies on actively treating the groundwater contamination because they claim that there is currently no risk from their plume.
In an October 1991 report, Thomas wrote: Agrico continues to maintain that there has been no impact from their site upon water supply wells and that groundwater remediation is unlikely to be necessary. However, the 12th Avenue well is no longer in service due to the impacts of the Agrico plume.
Thomas also criticized the companies for not evaluating the human exposure risks associated with contact with the radium in the groundwater. The groundwater pathway must be considered, he wrote in a January 1992 review of the companies` research.
EPA was not the only regulatory agency concerned about radium at the Agrico site.
The Florida Department of Environmental Regulation also criticized the consultants` work. At a bare minimum, wrote Zoe Kulakowski in the agency`s Technical Review Section in August 1991, public wells south of the Agrico plant should be tested for radium. This information is essential for complete characterization of the groundwater and for proper remedial design.
When the consultants finally did test for radium, they found problems.
Groundwater monitoring well sampling in the town of Pensacola FL, has turned up high levels of radionuclides which seem to trace back to the site, wrote Bruce Youtsey, a Conoco consultant, in an April 1992 e-mail. Do you know of any agencies we need to report this?
ECUA steps in
By this point, the companies had submitted the results of their investigation to EPA, and they were recommending against an active cleanup. Instead, they recommended a limited action alternative: allow the polluted groundwater to naturally filter underground over 70 years.
The protests from regulators were unanimous.
Goldberg, the EPA remedial project manager, summed up the problem.
The difficulty with the limited action alternative for groundwater is that it will result in allowing the plume to remain in the impacted aquifer, she wrote in a June 1992 letter to Conoco. She reiterated EPA`s position that the companies needed to pump and treat the contaminated plume.
The water supply from the Sand-and-Gravel Aquifer is considered irreplaceable, due to the fact that an alternative source of water for this portion of Escambia County cannot yield sufficient supply for the needs of this area, she wrote.
The companies and their consultants disagreed.
My feeling is that we need to respond to the EPA … with as much firepower as possible to justify our approach to the limited action alternative, wrote Gordinier, The Williams Cos.` senior environmental engineer, in a February 1993 memo. The companies persuaded the Escambia County Utilities Authority – which inherited the city`s water system when it was created in 1981 – to write a letter arguing against the pump-and-treat option. The letter, which the companies sent to EPA, was used as justification not to require an active cleanup of the toxic plume.
Officials at The Williams Cos. and DuPont worked with Bernie Dahl, who at the time was ECUA`s scientific, technical and regulatory administrator, to draft the letter, records show. It was signed by then-Executive Director A.E. Van Van Dever Jr.
At the time, plans for treating the contaminated groundwater called for pumping out about 1 million gallons a day and sending it to the Main Street wastewater treatment plant in downtown Pensacola. But in the March 1993 letter signed by Van Dever, the utility argued that the sewer plant could not handle the pumped-out wastewater for numerous reasons, including that it would reduce plant capacity to process its normal load of sewage.
If ECUA were to accept groundwater from this site it would be limiting the potential growth of the community in direct proportion to the volume of water received, the letter said. We believe that this would have a very serious adverse economic impact on Pensacola and Escambia County.
But only a year earlier ECUA had told the companies` consultants it would be happy to work with us on a discharge option to the Main Street (wastewater treatment) plant, consultants at Geraghty & Miller reported in a February 1992 memorandum. There is plenty of capacity in the plant to handle (a million gallons a day) discharge.
The letter to EPA signed by Van Dever also stated that ECUA officials were concerned that a pump-and-treat cleanup could draw saltwater into the freshwater aquifer. In addition, the letter noted, it is our understanding that the Agrico pollutant plume is not adversely impacting our wells, even though studies from as early as the late 1950s indicated otherwise.
We believe that the only appropriate way to handle groundwater cleanup projects is to only extract the contaminated groundwater when it becomes an identified threat to the water quality of an existing or proposed well, the letter said.
It pleased Gordinier, who proofread the letter before Van Dever signed it. This looks great to me! she wrote to Cindy Green at DuPont. I asked Bernie to have it signed & faxed.
Van Dever, who was fired by the ECUA board in March 2002 and now heads the Utilities Department in the City of Lake Worth, Fla., declined to discuss who wrote the letter, or why it was written. He did, however, say he stands behind the conclusion that pump-and-treat would not work.
Dahl, who retired in January, declined to comment.
Meanwhile, the companies` consultants continued to design studies to avoid pumping out contaminants in the plume.
It is understood that you will gather and provide information which will … support our approach in favor of the `limited action` alternative for groundwater, wrote Gordinier in a March 1, 1993, letter to Jeffrey Wagner at Woodward-Clyde Consultants.
They focused on three points: pumping would cause other groundwater contamination to migrate, possibly to other wells; pumping would draw saltwater from Bayou Texar into the freshwater aquifer; removing millions of gallons of groundwater would reduce the supply of available potable water, regardless of the fact it was polluted.
The saltwater issue was critical, Goldberg said in a recent interview. Once saltwater contaminates freshwater, it is almost impossible to correct, she said.
You never return to clean drinking water, she said. You never go back.
But the companies and their consultants knew that a pump- and-treat alternative could work without drawing saltwater into the freshwater aquifer and without causing contaminants from other polluted sites in the area to move. EPA – and the companies` own consultants – already had shown them how.
The key was to limit pumping out contaminated groundwater to about 1 million gallons a day and to use reinjection wells to pump clean water back into the aquifer. We believe that these potential effects can be mitigated with the use of additional reinjection wells that are strategically placed, wrote Goldberg in a June 1992 letter to Conoco.
That, according to EPA, would prevent the migration of other contaminated groundwater, specifically from the nearby Escambia Treating Co. Superfund site, as well as keep out saltwater from Bayou Texar.
The companies, records show, knew this.
Remediation pumping of about 1 million gallons per day … probably would have minimal hydrologic effect, concluded McDonald, the McDonald Morrissey Associates consultant in a February 1993 letter to officials at The Williams Cos.
In the end, Goldberg said studies and data provided to EPA by the companies convinced officials that the risk of saltwater contamination was not worth the benefit of pumping out the toxic plume. But documents provided to her by the News Journal raise many questions, she said. The EPA, she said, should reopen the groundwater cleanup plan.
If there`s evidence it is not protective of the public health, (Superfund law) allows us to go back and knock on their doors and say, `Hey, we`re back,` she said.
If there`s another solution out there that works better, let`s go for it.