SMOKINCHOICES (and other musings)

November 27, 2012

Streams: Legacy of Pollution


Industry, mining leave legacy of tainted streams

Thousands of miles of waterways across Ohio are poisoned by PCBs and a host of other toxins


MIDDLETOWN, Ohio — For nearly two decades, Dicks Creek has been the worst of Ohio’s worst, a creek so polluted that officials put up warning signs to keep everyone away.  The creek bed is laden with PCBs, which are banned chemicals. The polychlorinated biphenyls were discovered in the creek bed at levels 3,000 times Ohio’s clean-water standard and eventually traced back to a nearby steel-mill complex.

  • So the signs were put in place and the new norm in town was to avoid Dicks Creek.

Then, a couple of years ago, workers dressed in hazard suits and driving earth-moving machines moved into the area, where the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency is overseeing a massive cleanup.

Perched atop the Yankee Road bridge, Bonnie Buthker, the Ohio EPA’s southwest district chief, recently pointed out the dam, pumps and pipeline that shuttle the stream water around the excavation work-site. “You see that different color soil?” Buthker asks. “That’s where they just removed all of the contamination.”

Kyle Robertson / DISPATCH

Workers are excavating toxic sediment from Dicks Creek, where water now flows through temporary pipes.

Polluted streams — dozens statewide — pose critical problems for fish, wildlife and humans.   Harmful compounds, including mercury, can work their way up the food chain, passing from microbes to fish and then to people. Other contaminants threaten drinking-water supplies and cost taxpayers millions to purify.

Buoyed by millions of dollars in federal cleanup funds, state officials recently lifted warnings for Toledo’s Ottawa River, where people had been instructed to not touch the water.

The same goes for work to repair 1,300 miles of streams in southern and eastern Ohio rendered nearly lifeless by a mix of sulfuric acid and metals that continues to seep from century-old abandoned coal mines.

Recent steps to scrub air pollutants — especially mercury — from coal-fired power plants, raise hopes that Ohio streams can recover.

  • But where stream cleanups are concerned, cash is key. Without it, pollution issues linger unresolved for years.

KYLE ROBERTSON DISPATCH PHOTOS The Ottawa River in Toledo has undergone a massive cleanup and restoration. It was among the most-polluted waterways in Ohio.

Toxins old and new

PCBs don’t break down in water, making them among the most insidious toxins found in streams and creeks across the United States.

  • Once a common ingredient in hydraulic fluids and electric transformers, PCBs were banned in 1979 after health studies linked them to cancer and other diseases.  PCBs are the subject of one of the nation’s most extensive and expensive environmental cleanups currently under way in the Hudson River system downstream of a General Electric plant near Hudson Falls, N.Y.
  • Mercury is different. Despite its connection to brain and nervous-system disorders, the coal-fired power plants that dot Ohio continue to spew pollutants that include mercury.   Much of it ends up in streams and rivers, where fish ingest the poison. There are warnings concerning fish consumption for every stream in Ohio and 27 other states.

Yet there is some hope. Power plants must cut their emissions by 90 percent by 2015, according to U.S. EPA rules enacted last year.   The government hopes that mercury levels in streams and rivers will dissipate, but no one knows how long that will take.

The cost of cleanups

Dicks Creek symbolizes long-standing “legacy” pollution issues created by Ohio’s heavy industry.

Though high levels of PCBs were found in the creek’s sediment in 1995, it took EPA officials two years to trace the contamination to the AK Steel complex on Middletown’s east side.

  • AK Steel, the town’s biggest employer, was a reluctant cleanup partner. A 2006 environmental lawsuit settlement set the stage for years of negotiations over how the work would be performed in a cleanup area that stretches more than 2 miles.
  • Company officials still are reluctant to discuss the project, which is scheduled for completion by 2013.

Barry Racey, a company spokesman, wrote in an email that the first phase of the three-phase cleanup, finished in 2010, cost $17 million.   The total cost for the project is unclear. The $17 million first phase already has eclipsed a $12 million total cleanup estimate the company and federal officials listed in their 2006 settlement.

“In some ways, it’s just astonishing that something like this would take so long,” said Marilyn Wall, a board member of the Ohio Sierra Club, which took part in the government cleanup lawsuit.   “I’ll be happiest,” she said, “when I see the restoration and when the people can actually come back and enjoy this stream.”

Cleaning the Ottawa River

Rocks keep pollutants from running off a scrap yard into Sibley Creek, which flows into the Ottawa River in Toledo.

In February, Ohio EPA officials lifted no contact and do not eat warnings for a 5-mile stretch of the Ottawa River after tests of fish there showed significant drops in chemicals, including PCBs and PAHs, or polyhydroxyalkanoates, which are bio-plastics.

The change followed a $47 million project to dredge the stream. The Great Lakes Legacy Act paid for half of the cost and a partnership of 10 companies and the City of Toledo paid for the rest.

The dredging removed more than 240,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment, including nearly 3 tons of PCBs and 40 tons of PAHs.

The partnership continues to work on the Ottawa, transforming it from little more than a ditch where it flows through the University of Toledo into a meandering stream with a flood plain.

Restoration efforts include slowing the flow of storm-water that runs off of nearby parking lots and roofs and catching road salt and vehicle pollutants before they reach tributary streams that flow into the Ottawa.

“It’s going to create an opportunity for people and the campus to get connected to the river,” said Matt Horvat, a watershed coordinator for the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments.

At the R&M Recycling scrap yard, the city is testing a pile of gravel and mulch placed in a low-lying drainage area at the edge of the scrap yard. The idea is to trap pollutants in storm water before it runs into Sibley Creek, a key Ottawa River tributary.

“After all this work was done, we don’t want to have to come back and (clean it) again,” said Kurt Erichsen, the council’s vice president of environmental planning.

Ohio’s dirty coal legacy

State mining officials have significantly increased funding to clean streams poisoned by old abandoned coal mines.  Hundreds of mines legally abandoned by companies — some more than a century ago — leak sulfuric acid, iron and aluminum into streams. The mixture stains stream bottoms orange and white and leaves the waterways nearly lifeless.

With the help of federal coal taxes allocated for cleanups, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has steadily increased funding for acid mine drainage cleanups, from $858,595 in 2009 to a projected $3.1 million this year.   “For 2013, we have almost $4.4 million in work planned,” said Ben McCament, the ODNR acid mine drainage program manager.

The scope of this cleanup is immense. Officials are still surveying streams in Ohio’s coal country to identify all of the problem areas.

  • Unlike Dicks Creek and the Ottawa River, pollutants from abandoned coal mines continue to taint streams. Efforts to treat and to stem the flow of pollutants likely will take decades.

McCament is a former coordinator of the Raccoon Creek Partnership, a group committed to cleaning the southern Ohio stream of the same name. He said he’s impressed with the increased number of cleanups.   “It’s way more than what we had in the past,” McCament said. “We’ve more than doubled what we’re constructing and reclaiming each year.”

Federal money isn’t needed for some of the projects.

McCament said the Ohio Department of Transportation paid for four acid mine drainage cleanup projects as part of an agreement with federal officials to replace environmental losses caused by its Rt. 33 construction in the Wayne National Forest.

The projects placed materials including limestone to remove acid and dissolved metals from the water.   “The last project is just being completed,” McCament said.   No money, no cleanup

There is a stretch of the Little Scioto River southwest of Marion that has been toxic since the 1890s.    The Baker Wood Preserving Co. used coal-tar creosote as a preservative for railroad ties, which were set out in a yard to dry in the sun.

Rain water likely washed the poison from the yard into a nearby sewer line, officials say.   The company continued the practice until it closed in the 1960s.

  • A 1996 U.S. EPA soil survey at the factory site found “some of the highest concentrations of PAHs ever recorded.”

The U.S. EPA completed partial cleanups in 2002 and 2006 that dredged more than 68,000 tons of creosote from a 1.25-mile stretch of the stream.    More than 3 miles of contamination remain, with no source of funds to clean the stream.

The Little Scioto was named a Superfund site in September 2009. The federal program, which provides money for environmental cleanups, lists more than 1,200 toxic sites in need of funding.

At the time, Steve Snyder, the U.S. EPA’s Little Scioto site coordinator, said that a cleanup could begin by 2012.

  • Now, Howard Caine, who replaced Snyder, said it could take months to years to draft a new cleanup plan.

John Devine, a senior attorney for the advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council, said the Little Scioto’s problems are typical and some cleanups languish for years.

“With legacy problems,” Devine said, “cleanup plans are really only as effective as the ability to insist that someone take the pollution out of the water.”                                                                                                                                          @CDEnvironment


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