“Are we dealing with a mouse or a heffalump?”
The speaker is John Sticpewich; the question is urgent.
Sticpewich, a retired petroleum geologist who lives in Weaverville, is talking about pollution at the former Sayles-Biltmore Bleacheries site in east Asheville, slated for major redevelopment.
That a toxic-waste problem exists on the site is not new news. But what Sticpewich is pointing out is something so fundamental it’s almost embarrassing.
“No one knows the size of the problem,” he told Xpress. “No one even knows the order of magnitude.”
It’s hardly an academic question. Test wells drilled at the site several years ago by an environmental consulting firm hired by the developers, Riverbend Business Partners LLC, revealed hazardous levels of cancer-causing substances. Riverbend has pledged to clean up the problem, but the proposed remediation plan, say Sticpewich and others, is designed to remove contaminants measured in parts per billion. If the actual toxic pool contains hundreds or thousands of gallons, such treatment would have to continue for decades or even centuries.
The Sayles site is no stranger to controversy. Two years of bitter opposition by citizen groups fighting the proposed redevelopment of the property as a shopping center (anchored by a Super Wal-Mart) and “urban village” seemingly ended last summer when the Asheville City Council — after a marathon three-day public hearing — issued a conditional-use permit to Riverbend. That controversy may erupt again in late January, when a legal challenge to Council’s action (on procedural grounds) is scheduled to come before a Superior Court judge. Meanwhile, the developers are still waiting for the state to approve their proposed remediation plan; without that approval, the project can’t legally go forward.
But amid all the furor, the toxic problem that has prompted Sticpewich to step forward with a 1,600-page sheaf of papers in his hand has been mostly overlooked.
The geologist outlined his concerns in a Nov. 14 letter to Environmental Toxicologist Hanna Assefa of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The letter requested a new public hearing on both the extent of the contamination and on the proposed remediation plan which, Sticpewich asserts, does not meet the legal requirement of using “best management practices,” as described in the pertinent scientific literature.
In a Jan. 2 letter to the developers, Assefa posed a lengthy list of stringent questions (see “Expert testimony?” below), giving them until Jan. 30 to respond.
Sayles property co-owner Harley Dunn told Xpress that Holton Environmental Associates, the consulting firm hired by Riverbend, is preparing a response.
But the only way to actually solve this kind of problem, experts say, is to locate the toxic pool or pools and remove the offending chemicals. Otherwise, construction on the site could trigger a massive release that would poison the river and perhaps affect remote drinking-water wells.
Poison in the water
In August of 2000, Assefa told Xpress that water samples from test wells at the site had revealed hazardous levels of an industrial solvent, perchloroethylene (PCE — also known as tetrachloroethylene). “Nobody should be drinking that water,” she said.
The samples also revealed the presence of “daughter” compounds — chemicals resulting from the breakdown of PCE over time — including trichloroethylene (TCE) and 1,2-dichloroethylene (DCE). Ground water beneath the site flows into the Swannanoa River, and samples drawn from the riverbed also contained PCE.
All of these are known carcinogens. According to the World Health Organization Web site, “At high concentrations, tetrachloroethylene causes central nervous system depression. Lower concentrations of tetrachloroethylene have been reported to damage the liver and the kidneys … [and] to produce liver tumours in male and female mice, with some evidence of mononuclear cell leukaemia in male and female rats and kidney tumours in male rats.”
The WHO also notes that both PCE and TCE degrade to vinyl chloride, itself a potent carcinogen. Vinyl chloride pollution in the water supply in Woburn, Mass. — documented in the book A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr, and publicized in a film based on the book — was linked to an excessive number of local childhood cancers.
Anecdotal evidence obtained by Xpress suggests that tens of thousands of gallons of PCE were dumped on the site and that much of it may remain pooled there, pending slow dissipation via ground-water flow — or sudden, catastrophic release due to human or natural disruption.
Although there are no drinking-water wells in the immediate area, this type of pollutant continually moves down through permeable soil and fractures in the bedrock. Thus, it has the potential to pollute ground water far from the site, according to EPA documents obtained by Xpress. A large release into the Swannanoa River could cause fish kills and would flow into the French Broad River — the primary drinking-water source for Knoxville’s 175,000 people.
For 40 years, John Sticpewich plied his trade around the globe, working for major oil companies and dealing with finding, safeguarding and containing petroleum and its distillates. He carries a wealth of knowledge about how liquids behave in the soil, and he can read and decipher technical literature that would make most of us shudder.
In discussing Sticpewich’s questions, Dunn told Xpress, “I’d be interested to hear what his credentials are to begin with, to talk about such things.”
Told about the petroleum geologist’s background, Dunn said: “Well, that’s why we hire people who are experts at what they do, not in some other field of endeavor like he was. Folks like this may make very sincere comments, but they’re just comments. And it’s unfortunate, you know, because anything we publish on it, it’s required that it be technically accurate and be done by expert people.”
But the questions now being raised are based less on Sticpewich’s specific area of expertise than on his ability to comprehend the 1,600 pages of environmental documents in the Sayles file at Pack Memorial Library.
In any case, Assefa clearly regards Sticpewich’s questions as far more than comments. Her Jan. 2 letter to the developers and their environmental consultant demands immediate answers to all of the questions raised in both Sticpewich’s Nov. 14 letter and in a subsequent iteration of his concerns. Riverbend faces a Jan. 30 deadline to provide comprehensive documentation of very complex matters, including:
• a description of local geology and hydrology; the nature and distribution of fractures in the bedrock; the direction of ground-water flow in the bedrock;
• boring to the top of the bedrock to determine depth; a description of intermediate impermeable layers;
• a description of ground-water flow and pollutant behavior in the treatment area and adjoining river;
• constructing a monitor well in the bedrock at an appropriate location;
• explaining why the previous test wells and methodology were adequate;
• proposing a method to identify perched toxic pools;
• preparing a map of background sediment/surface water relative to the site;
• identifying drinking-water wells within one-half mile of the site.
It would appear that Holton Environmental Associates will have its hands full this month.
Local environmental groups are also concerned about the Sayles site.
David Wallace, who handles water-quality issues for the Wenoca Chapter of the Sierra Club, said his organization believes “more and better sampling at the site is essential, to determine the nature and distribution of the pollution.
“When DENR activates the public-notice period, Sierra Club expects to comment, unless the new proposed agreement answers all our concerns.”
Hope Taylor-Guevara, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina, concurs. “This involves the same issues I raised in my testimony at the Planning & Zoning hearing last June. It needs to be addressed,” she said.
Sticpewich also offered brief testimony during last summer’s City Council hearings. But based on what he then understood about the situation, he could only speculate in more general terms, and his concerns were discounted along with the rest of the environmental information presented — Council members being content with Wal-Mart’s promise to undertake all necessary remediation (in accordance with a remedial-action plan prepared by Holton).
What bugged Sticpewich then — and bothers him more now — is that the scope of the problem is totally unknown. Last fall, retired chemist Bill Dickason learned of Sticpewich’s concern and phoned the geologist to point out that PCE has a specific gravity greater than that of water. For Sticpewich, it was a eureka moment.
“Of course! PCE is a DNAPL!” (pronounced “deenapple”).
That clue, which is apt to leave 99.9 percent of the public shrugging its collective shoulders, is crucial to understanding the toxic problem we now face.
Perchloroethylene is a “dense, nonaqueous phase liquid”; in other words, it’s heavier than water and won’t mix with it. Sticpewich’s experience was primarily with oil, which has a specific gravity less than that of water. Or in layman’s terms, oil floats; PCE sinks. That’s the essential point that clicked for Sticpewich — seeing the specific-gravity tree in the forest, if you will. If you pour a gallon of PCE on the ground, some evaporates, but the rest flows straight down until it hits an impervious surface. Then it just sits there.
Whoever dumped the PCE on the Sayles site probably hoped the offending DNAPLs would simply “go away.” But because they’re immiscible in water (i.e. they don’t dissolve — though molecules of DNAPLs can become physically suspended in water), that just doesn’t happen, according to DNAPL Site Evaluation by Robert M. Cohen and James W. Mercer, the definitive source on dealing with this kind of contamination (and the guide used by Sticpewich in navigating the massive Sayles file).
Sure, given hundreds of years of ground-water flow, a subterranean pool of PCE will eventually wash downstream (and Cohen and Mercer’s book includes a formula for figuring the rate of dissipation based on flow rate, quantity of DNAPL, geology, etc.). But the rate of dissipation is so slow that the toxic load in the runoff is likely to appear only as a trace chemical. Toxic, yes — but thinly spread and thus of only minor consequence (see sidebar: “Water and water don’t mix?”).
Minor, that is, unless the pool is disturbed by an earthquake — or a bulldozer. Such a disruption could seriously affect the hydrogeology of the site, tipping the “perches” (see diagram) and perhaps flushing raw PCE into the river — with potentially grave consequences for folks downstream.
All 16 of the widely spaced test wells punched by Holton on the 100-acre site, notes Sticpewich, were 10 feet deep. This produced only a partial picture of one single stratum. Three of the wells showed traces of PCE with no daughter compounds. “That means,” he told Xpress, “that there is a pool of the solvent down there somewhere.” Sticpewich insisted, however, that such limited testing done at only one depth gives no clues as to where the pool might be.
The most likely scenario, says the geologist, is that there are a series of perched pools (see diagram). The PCE sinks until it hits a layer of rock or clay and then flows gradually over the surface until it reaches a crack or an edge and sinks again to the next impermeable layer.
How much PCE would a PCE crew dump if a PCE crew …
So the urgent question remains: What quantity of solvent was dumped to begin with?
The Sayles operation used rollers and dye pads for processing fabric, and that equipment was cleaned with PCE after each dye run. In this more innocent era — when our planet was regarded as a huge sink, and we still imagined that it could comfortably absorb whatever we threw at it — the used solvent was routinely dumped on the ground or straight-piped into the river.
How many rollers were in use? Were the rollers cleaned once a year or twice a day? Did each cleaning require a pint of solvent or 10 gallons? The answers to such questions, multiplied by the factory’s 60-plus-year history, produce hugely varying numbers that range from dozens of gallons to thousands. In Sticpewich’s phrase, “A mouse or a heffalump?”
“If the rollers were washed weekly using only two gallons of solvent, the total contamination would be about 2,000 gallons,” says Sticpewich.
Asheville native Phillip Hendricks, who worked at the plant for 38 years before retiring in 1984, remembers the cleaning process and the powerful chemical used. “I don’t know what it was — they didn’t tell us,” he told Xpress. “But it would even stick your rubber gloves to the rollers.”
“We cleaned the rollers and dye pads every time they changed the dye,” he explained. Asked how often that would happen, Hendricks said: “Sometimes twice a day. It depended on the size of the run. Sometimes they ran 20,000 yards of material, and that could be a two-day run.”
Xpress then questioned Hendricks about the amount of solvent used; did the process require a pint per cleaning, or 10 gallons? “About five gallons,” was his response; “a bucketful.”
In later years, says Hendricks, some sort of treatment system was installed, but before that time, the used solvent went down the tubes and “into the river, I guess.”
Wherever the pipe emptied (anecdotal evidence in DENR documents suggests that the solvent was simply poured on the ground), it appears that the total volume of PCE dumped over six decades could easily amount to tens of thousands of gallons.
Wal-Mart opponents — and Sticpewich doesn’t count himself among them, noting that he shops at the popular chain retailer — might well seize on this toxic problem as a potential deal-killer. But the geologist points out that the answer is enormously important to the developer in any case, because Riverbend agreed to fund a cleanup as a condition for obtaining its permit from the city.
“If the pool, or pools, is located, the PCE can be removed,” said Sticpewich. “But the current plan treats the smoke, not the fire. Unless the fire is addressed, treatment of the smoke could last for a hundred years.” The geologist also notes that the cost of continuing inadequate remediation over decades would quickly outstrip the cost of addressing the real problem now.
Last June, a representative of Holton Environmental Associates told Xpress that it was just a matter of time before the state granted the “no further action” status needed to enable construction at the Sayles site to legally go forward. But pending Assefa’s receipt of answers to John Sticpewich’s questions, that outcome remains in doubt. And in the meantime, Riverbend’s proposed Super Wal-Mart development plan hangs in the balance.
Water and water don’t mix?
One of the most puzzling statements in the remedial-action plan prepared by Holton Environmental Associates reads as follows:
“If groundwater was flowing unimpeded into the river at these points, PCE degradation products would not build up as indicated. By inference, this means that the river is acting as a hydraulic barrier to the groundwater movement.”
Hope Taylor-Guevara, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina, told Xpress, “I don’t see the connection between those two sentences. If there were a highly concentrated source of PCE in contact with the sediments, you could still find those degradation products.” She continued, “Moving river water is always at a lower pressure than ground water, and the flow is always from higher pressure to lower pressure.”
Taylor-Guevara holds a degree in environmental chemistry and biology with a focus on water quality. Her career includes 20 years as a biomedical researcher at Duke University and as a technical advisor to communities with Superfund sites.
Dr. Gregory Holton, of Holton Environmental Associates, has not returned phone calls concerning this and other questions.
O brother, where art thou?
Xpress is looking for people who worked at Sayles-Biltmore Bleacheries. Readers who worked there or know of someone who did are asked to contact Xpress. Call Cecil Bothwell at (828) 251-1333, ext. 115.