REEF cleanup steadily progressing
by Emily McLain
Jun 25, 2013 | 1871 views |  0 comments | 123 123 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Federal on-scene coordinator Jason Booth adjusts a pump siphoning wastewater from the equalization basin pictured behind him at the REEF superfund site. EPA has discharged 7 million gallons of waste thus far and estimates cleanup to be complete within four to six weeks. Photo by Brian Schoenhals/The Daily Home
Federal on-scene coordinator Jason Booth adjusts a pump siphoning wastewater from the equalization basin pictured behind him at the REEF superfund site. EPA has discharged 7 million gallons of waste thus far and estimates cleanup to be complete within four to six weeks. Photo by Brian Schoenhals/The Daily Home
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SYLACAUGA – Once brimming with untreated wastewater, the basins at REEF Environmental are now largely empty, a reassuring sign that cleanup of the troubled facility is nearing an end.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is past the halfway point and progressing steadily at the superfund site, federal on-scene coordinator Jason Booth said Tuesday. More than 7 million gallons of wastewater has been treated and discharged with roughly 4 million gallons remaining. A majority of the wastewater is released into Shirtee Creek through an underground pipe, while some, about 1.6 million gallons to date, is discharged onto a grassy field at the Twin Street facility.

“I’m happy with where we’re at right now,” Booth said. “We’re doing OK with the remaining budget, and we’re at a good place as far as getting the water out of here. Most importantly, we’ve reduced all hydrogen sulfide emissions.”

Hydrogen sulfide gas, produced by bacteria in the wastewater, is the culprit behind the infamous REEF odor that has periodically permeated the city since shortly after the facility opened in 2007. EPA is controlling gas emissions during treatment by mixing hydrogen peroxide into the waste, thus killing the odor-causing bacteria. Booth said ridding the community of the odor has remained a priority since EPA arrived at REEF about nine months ago.

“I hope we have improved the overall quality of life here, as far as air is concerned, and not only for the present, but for the future,” he said. “It’s not like we’re putting a band-aid on the site. We’re getting it to the point where it never causes an issue again.”

Wastewater discharges have gone smoothly since they began last month, Booth said, and contractors are now working from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week to expedite cleanup, estimated to be complete in four to six weeks.

EPA, in partnership with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, is monitoring its emissions with weekly effluent testing, bi-weekly testing upstream and downstream of the creek discharge point, and a monthly toxicity test of creek water. EPA checks for more than 100 constituents, all of which typically test well within the permitted limits save for sodium, Booth said.

As they near the bottom of the 18-foot deep wastewater basins, the untreated wastewater has a black hue with clumps of oily sludge throughout. Booth said their treatment system, composed of various filtration systems, can handle the increased concentrations of pollutants, but at a slower pace and by changing filters more frequently. Last week, EPA used about 400 filters.

The nonhazardous sludge is, however, causing somewhat of an issue for EPA, Booth said. Drying beds on site hold sludge until enough water evaporates or drains from it to stabilize the substance. All of the usable drying beds are currently full, and with more sludge appearing daily, EPA will have to move large holding tanks covering other drying beds before it can store any more.

As for funding, Booth said he is confident EPA can complete cleanup within its $2.1 million budget, having spent about $1.6 million so far. Remaining actions at the site, such as filling in the basins and potentially recovering cleanup costs from former REEF customers, are to be determined in court with the now-bankrupt REEF company, Booth said. He said he hopes EPA will be able to knock out some of the basin walls and partially fill the basins in to prevent future use of the facility and leave it in a safe state.

“Once hazardous substances have been eliminated, or the threat of hazardous substances, my job is done,” Booth said, “but we do want to leave the site in the most environmentally sound condition as possible.”

Contact Emily Adams at eadams@dailyhome.com.