by Steven Hale
Metro officials seem to be suggesting that the only toxic agent lingering at that incinerator demolition site in Germantown is sweeps.
Earlier this week, WSMV reported that the city was planning to bury debris containing toxic chemicals — including arsenic and PCBs, which have been linked to cancer in humans — on the site of a now-demolished incinerator facility near the Germantown neighborhood, just 300 yards from the Cumberland River.
But Metro officials say there's nothing to worry about.
Although none would agree to be interviewed by WSMV on camera, the station reported that "officials say everything bad is in low concentrations, except for arsenic — and even that isn't any worse than what you would find in new commercial brick from a building supply store." The Tennessean's Bobby Allyn reported similar statements from officials at Metro Water Services yesterday.
We spoke to the same officials this morning and got some further explanation.
“The story characterized it as ‘toxic materials,' " says Ron Taylor, Clean Water Program director at Water Services. "We don’t agree with that assessment at all. The materials we’re talking about, there’s brick and concrete. And they’ve been tested for toxicity and they passed. So they could be put into a regular landfill, or since we’ve got this empty concrete basement that has to be filled with something, we can keep it here. We avoid putting material in a landfill — and nobody wants to site additional landfills in the future — so this kind of made sense to us.”
Taylor says the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation approved the plan.
At some point, Taylor explains, the concrete in the facility was contaminated with PCBs. He says the city submitted a cleanup plan to the Environmental Protection Agency, which included removing "everything to less than one part per million of PCBs, which is the ideal cleanup level."
“All the PCB-contaminated material is gone," he says. "The only PCBs that are left is, we’ve got some concrete that’s not contaminated with PCB, but may have some paint on the surface that has a little bit of PCBs in the paint. PCBs that are above the detection level, but below the action level. So EPA doesn’t consider that a toxic issue.”
Since the WSMV report came out Tuesday, the last line of the accompanying article has raised some eyebrows:
Yet the contractor being asked to do this burial work wanted a piece of paper on city letterhead saying this course of action was OK. That company has yet to get the directive in writing.
Asked about that, Taylor says that despite approvals from the EPA and TDEC, the team doing the demolition "have been, for some reason, resistant to this approved plan for the last year."
"They sent a letter to us sometime last fall, saying we want on agency letterhead approval from these seven agencies," he says. "So we sent them a letter back on our letterhead saying these are the approved plans, these are the processes that have been followed, this is what you’re supposed to do with this material and we carbon-copied all seven of those agencies. So did they get a letter from all seven of those agencies? No. Because typically you’re not going to get an agency to approve a process, and then re-approve it.”
On Thursday, Metro Council member Erica Gilmore, who represents the North Nashville district where the demolition and burial is taking place, told us she had not been aware of the plan, and said she didn't think it was acceptable. She said there should be “some type of disclosure in place so people would know” and added that she had reached out to the Metro Codes Department and Water Services to get more information.
Today, Taylor tells Pith that officials didn't feel there was anything to disclose.
“We didn’t put any notice about this particular demolition because we didn’t think it was a concern," he says. "When you’ve got the environmental regulatory agencies on board with what you’re doing, we never thought that it would be an issue.”
It is now. Over at his blog, Mike Byrd — a neighbor and activist in nearby Salemtown — raises concern about the fact that the site is in a floodplain, and wonders what might happen if another catastrophic flood met up with Metro's planned tomb for the debris in question.
Taylor says the testing done on the site “looks at the potential for any leaching in the future, and will something toxic come out that could adversely affect the environment” and reiterates that the debris passed that testing.
“And we’re going to be putting it in a concrete vault, covered in clay," he says, "which is pretty much like a landfill.”
Of course, for some who have to live near the site, that's precisely the problem.