EPA, Chemtronics agree on cleanup of Swannanoa Superfund site

Paul Clark
Black Mountain News

Remaining cleanup of the Chemtronic’s Superfund site in Swannanoa should begin in spring, though it will be at least 30 years before groundwater there is drinkable, according to a recent report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Remedial work the EPA laid out in a September cleanup plan will cost a little more than $18 million over the next 30 years, to be paid by Chemtronics and the two other parties responsible for the cleanup - Northrop Grumman Systems Corp. and CNA Holdings, LLC - according to Jon Bornholm, the EPA remedial project manager who has worked on the Superfund site since 1984.

Dairy land at one time, the Chemtronics Superfund site in Swannanoa has concerned neighboring residents for decades.

Restoring groundwater through the polluted land to “beneficial use” will take at least 30 years, the EPA said in a report it presented at the Swannanoa Fire Department in September. “Groundwater is extremely difficult to clean up, and it takes a very long time,” EPA stated in its report.

Chemtronics, Northrop and CNA – the three “potentially responsible parties” as the EPA calls them - are still negotiating with the federal agency about how the land should be restricted. But they’ve agreed that it should be limited to commercial or industrial use, according to Robert Cork of Altamont Environmental, an Asheville firm that has been retained by the three potentially responsible parties, or PRPs, to support Superfund activities on the site. Its three clients “concur” with the EPA’s September cleanup plan, he said.

The three PRPs and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy are working on a conservation easement to permanently protect 530 non-polluted acres of the upper elevations of the Chemtronics site. The conservancy hopes to complete the transaction next year, said Michelle Pugliese, its land protection director.

The Chemtronics Superfund Site is composed of 535 of Chemtronics’ 1,065 acres at 180 Old Bee Tree Road. The property, which the federal government placed it on its national priorities list in 1982, is bordered by national forest, state game land and the neighborhoods of Bee Tree, Dillingham Circle and Old Bee Tree/Rainbow Ridge. Warren Wilson College is less than a mile away.

Chemtronics made explosives, propellants, “incapacitating agents” and several specialty chemicals, according to the EPA report. Most of the products were made in what the EPA is calling the “front valley” of its property. The company tested its materials and disposed of its waste in the “back valley.” By the late 1980s, the company had ceased manufacturing there, ending it completely in 1994. Left behind in its waste disposal site was a stew of chemicals, including chlorinated and non-chlorinated solvents and acidic solutions, according to the report.

The land used to be a dairy farm. In 1952, Oerlikon Tool and Arms Corporation of America, a chemical manufacturer, established a plant there. Celanese Corporation of America was there from 1959 to 1965, and then came Chemtronics Inc., which still owns the property, according to the EPA report.

The EPA is concerned primarily with two sites on 10 acres, “the only areas on the site where the levels of contamination in the soil resulted in an unacceptable future risk,” according to the report. In those 10 acres are eight abandoned acid and organic waste pits that Chemtronics and its predecessors used. The other area contains two lined basins for the “neutralization and equalization” of waste before it was discharged into the county sewerage system.

The plan presented in September, agreed upon by EPA and the PRPs, calls for pumping an emulsified mixture of vegetable oil and bacteria into the contaminated water in the hopes that the bacteria will metabolize the contaminants in 20-70 years. The mixture has proven effective at test sites on the property, Bornholm said.

“We gotten good results that the bacterial is doing what we were hoping it was going to do,” he said in a recent interview.

The plan also calls for Chemtronics, Northrop and CNA Holdings to dig up and treat the rest of the contaminated soil and have it hauled to a hazardous waste site.

“On the whole, we think (the EPA’s plan) is several steps in the right direction,” said Amy Knisley, a Warren Wilson College professor who is chairman of the Swannanoa Superfund Community Advisory Group, formed in 2013 to represent the interest of local residents and landowners. The group “on the whole is accepting of this plan,” she said. “We certainly wish the cleanup of the groundwater could happen faster. We’ll be eager to see good progress.”

In its September report, the EPA said the likelihood that contamination is leaving the Superfund site via groundwater is “minimal.” Despite a request from the community action group to do so, the EPA doesn’t plan to test nearby private wells periodically, though it noted that the PRPs have said they’re willing to do so if homeowners request it.

The next step in the process is for the EPA to issue Chemtronics, Northrop and CNA Holdings letters that will convey a draft consent decree that will include timetables for the remaining work to be done, as well as penalties for failing to meet those deadlines, Bornholm said. They and the EPA will then work out a final consent decree binding the PRPs to the timetables.