Monday, June 03, 2013

TOP STORY >> Vertac monitoring will continue

Leader staff writer

Jacksonville officials are glad the city owns the old Vertac site, even though a federal judge ruled this week that the old Vertac site must still be monitored for possible contaminants.

The site now includes the new police headquarters, police and fire department training, the recycling center and more.

U.S. District Judge Price Marshall has ruled that until it is declared that no environmental hazard remains at the old plant site, East Bay Realty Services, a subsidiary of Hercules, has to treat the ground water and monitor the property.

Hercules, which once owned the chemical plant, must respond immediately and appropriately to any incident that involves the release of a hazardous substance or threatens public health, welfare or the environment. The company is no longer under court supervision but must submit written reports to the Environmental Protection Agency for five more years.

The property cannot be used for residential purposes or any project that involves exposure to soils. So, a nursing home, day care center, playground or church cannot be built there without the written approval of environmental authorities. The site’s groundwater and surface water can’t be used. Drilling, mining, excavation and backfilling with untested or hazardous soil is also prohibited.

Jim Durham, the city’s director of administration, said, “Most people don’t realize that the chemicals were not made or stored over the entire site. The chemicals were incinerated and the remaining ash entombed in concrete and fenced off.”

He said the site is basically divided into three sections: The section with the entombed ash from incineration of chemical wastes, another area that never had any problems and another section that had some contamination, but the latest tests show it is cleared.

“We’ve built the new public facility building, the joint training center, the recycling center and public works department all on the grounds that were part of the site, but not affected or polluted.”

Durham said a documentary film crew was out on-site recently filming the work the city had done  to show how  one of these Superfund sites can become  an asset.

The new 37,000-square-foot police headquarters on Marshall Road is a $6 million investment in the land.

“It’s good property,” Dur-ham said. “Safe, clean and easily accessible to the public.”
Of course the land wasn’t so “good” in 1979, when the EPA found that it was contaminated with dioxin, a toxic waste. Herbicide manufacturers Hercules Inc., a Delaware company, and Vertac Chemical Corp. were blamed. Vertac bought the land in 1976 from Hercules, which had owned it since 1963.

The property was cleaned up in 1998 with $150 million from the federal Superfund program, which oversaw the destruction of thousands of contaminated barrels from the old chemical plant.

Hercules spent $120 million and Vertac contributed $3 million to the cleanup of the 93 acres. They finished paying their portions of the bill in 2007.

“Back then,” Durham said, “the contamination was measured in parts per billion. But tests done lately show the problem is down to parts per trillion.”

Durham said the good thing about Vertac and Hercules was that the chemicals they produced were all organic and eventually organic material breaks down. “That’s why they are no longer finding the levels that used to be there,” he said.

Mayor Gary Fletcher said, “For all of us who understood what took place here to clean the site, it’s already been put to bed. For most people, it’s a foggy memory. As far as we’re concerned, it’s a dead issue. This was just the legal, judiciary process. The site is clean, (and)has been clean, for years. It’s a beautiful site. The wildlife, the vegetation is as healthy here as it is anywhere else.”

Fletcher said federal agencies could take much of the credit for that. “They were here watching, making sure that process was taken care of. We got extra attention.”

He said people have more to fear from pesticides that are sprayed on residential lawns than they do from the brownfield, the designation Vertac acquired after the cleanup.