October 9 marked the deadline for five Birmingham companies to respond to a notification by the Environmental Protection Agency implicating them as the potential sources of pollution at the North Birmingham Superfund site. Due to the government shutdown, however, the EPA has since been unresponsive, according to representatives of the companies.
The effort to clean up the North Birmingham Superfund site, which includes sections of Collegeville, Fairmont and Harriman Park, was initiated by the EPA in 2012 after test results showed toxic levels of arsenic, lead and other pollutants in the soil of the residential communities, according to the EPA website.
Walter Coke, a major coke manufacturer in Birmingham, was the first company to be cited by the EPA in 2012 for the cleanup of the contaminated properties. The EPA has set up a field office in north Birmingham to test roughly 1,200 properties. The test results have indicated more parties may potentially be responsible for the pollution, as made evident by the recent EPA notification.
Two weeks prior to last week’s deadline, Walter Coke, Drummond Coal, Alabama Gas Company, KMAC and U.S. Pipe each received a letter from the EPA. The letter stated, “At this time, the EPA would like to offer your client the opportunity to perform certain removal activities at the Site. The EPA typically uses Regional Removal Management Levels (RMLs) to assist the EPA and others in determining whether a removal action is appropriate at Superfund sites. Based on sampling results, approximately 400 properties exceed the RMLs for lead, arsenic and/or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.”
According to the EPA notification, which can be found on the agency website, they plan to use a phased approach in the cleanup by initially addressing 50 high risk properties. The notification stated that the potential parties would be given to opportunity to conduct the first phase of the removal action.
Of the five companies that received notifications, only Walter Coke and KMAC responded to questions from Weld regarding the recent developments.
Dennis Hall, the corporate communication director for Walter Coke, said that his company was surprised to be named as one of the Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs). “They sent us a letter, but they didn’t tell us what they found or the percentages or anything else. It would be like if you sent me a letter saying you we going to sue me but I don’t know why or the reason. We’re waiting on them to give us the results of their test,” Hall said. He went on to say that his company has not responded to the letter and has yet to hear anything from the EPA.
The notification stated that, “The EPA would like to receive your written response to this General Notice letter no later than fourteen calendar days from the date of this letter. In addition, the EPA would like to offer you the opportunity to meet and discuss this matter and to answer any other questions you may have regarding the Site.”
“How can we respond?” Hall said. “We don’t know anything.”
Robert Klinner, the vice president of KMAC, one of the companies cited by the EPA, said that he, like Hall, is unsure why his company could potentially be responsible for the cleanup of the Superfund site.
“’We received a letter and we responded. We then set up a meeting with them and they canceled. And that’s where we are. We actually had the meeting set up for the day the government shut down. We actually don’t know anything at this point. We haven’t heard any statements from the EPA saying exactly what we did. It didn’t say anything such as, ‘You did this’ or ‘You did that.’ We just don’t know what we’re being accused of or suspected of. I assume we will have that meeting when the government reopens. In other words, we plan to,” Klinner said.
The letter from EPA stated, “Under the CERCLA, specifically Sections 106(a) and 107(a), potentially responsible parties may be required to perform cleanup actions to protect public health, welfare or the environment. PRPs may also be responsible for costs incurred by the EPA in cleaning up the Site.”
Eva Dillard, the staff attorney for the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, explained that the longer the government stays shutdown, and the EPA workers remain furloughed, the harder it will be to begin work on the Superfund cleanup due to the work that is piling up at the EPA office.
“The shutdown will have a huge impact on the Superfund site in North Birmingham. The longer this goes on, the more problems there are going to be when they open back up,” Dillard said. The Black Warrior Riverkeeper works closely with the EPA, Dillard said, but they have not been in contact since the shutdown and have already been affected by it.
“We’ve applied for several permits with the EPA but we haven’t heard anything back yet, and as far as we can tell there is no end in sight. We haven’t had any contact with them because no one is there,” Dillard said.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) is another organization that works alongside the EPA on environmental issues. Scott Hughes, a spokesperson for ADEM, said that they have not yet felt the impact of the EPA shutdown, but as more time passes, complications may arise.
“At this point ADEM hasn’t been affected. We already had our work plans and funding mechanisms in place for the fiscal year, which began October 1. So from that perspective we have not felt any impact. We do flow a lot of data between us and the EPA. So far that has continued to operate smoothly. However there are concerns that as the shutdown continues there may be some issues with our electronic data flow,” Hughes said.
“Any time you’re dealing with computer programs there’s a lot of maintenance that goes along with that. A lot of the data flow between our agency and the EPA is electronic, so if there is a glitch in the flow and there is no one on that end to investigate that glitch then that could be a concern,” Hughes said, adding that so far no glitch has occurred.
When asked what this means for Alabama as a whole, Hughes said that all the major environmental programs within the state will continue to operate under ADEM’s supervision. “We are what the EPA considers an authorized state agency, which means we have demonstrated our rules and regulations are as stringent as they are at the federal level. The EPA has authorized us to implement all the environmental programs such as the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act and so on. So we have mechanisms in place to make sure these programs are implemented as the shutdown continues, however long that may be,” Hughes said.
Like Hughes, Hall said that his company does not know how long the communication blackout will last. “We haven’t heard anything back from them. The way I understand it is that we had 14 days to respond to that letter. During that time the shutdown occurred. It’s my understanding that the days since the shutdown will not count towards the initial deadline. Once they come back to work, they will pick back up on the day they left off. In other words if they shut down on day 12, then that’s when we believe they will pick it back up again,” Hall said.
Since there has been no contact with the EPA, however, Hall said he cannot be certain that this will be the case. “I don’t know exactly when the deadline happens because we haven’t been able to contact them and they haven’t tried to contact us.”
Some Alabamians may not be feeling the effects of the shutdown yet, but experts say that if the issue is not resolved by the end of the month, complications will begin to manifest in everyday life. As Dillard said, “If this is not resolved by the end of October, I’m not really sure what will happen, but I can tell you it won’t be good.”