EPA addresses citizens’ concerns
by Emily Adams
SYLACAUGA – Local, state and federal representatives addressed a packed house at a community meeting concerning cleanup of the REEF facility Tuesday night.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Alabama Department of Environmental Management, Agency for Toxic Response and Disease Registry, Talladega County Emergency Management Agency and other officials reiterated that stopping the odors from the facility is a top priority.

“My mission right now is to make the stink go away,” said federal on-scene coordinator David Andrews. “We’re going to get rid of the stink and get rid of the source of the stink.”

To make that happen, EPA and ADEM are developing a plan to treat and remove the 13 million gallons of untreated wastewater that have remained at the site since it closed in 2010. Andrews said they are expediting the cleanup process and hope to have the job done in 90 days or less.

“I’m very empathetic about what is going on, and the clock is running on us to take care of this,” he said.

Andrews said the waste will likely be treated using the existing facilities at the Twin Street site, and several disposal options are being explored, including discharging to the Sylacauga Utilities Board, which previously cut off REEF discharges after it said REEF caused it to violate its permitted levels.

“We’re not going to make everybody happy with that, but we’ve got to get that odor out of here, not at the expense of the environment, not at expense of polluting anybody down range,” Andrews said. “We’re going to treat it onsite, and we’re going to treat it to levels that are acceptable by the community and specifically by Sylacauga Utilities and the state of Alabama.”

Andrews said plans are still being developed, and an EPA Environmental Response Team from New Jersey will be onsite next week to oversee the cleanup and also bring in more sensitive air monitoring equipment, which was a major concern of citizens at the meeting.

EPA and ADEM conducted air monitoring during emergency response efforts at REEF about three weeks ago. The monitors mainly checked levels of hydrogen sulfide, a naturally occurring gas that is produced from the waste materials at REEF. No health risk was detected during that time.

Rick Nickle of ATSDR explained that odor threshold for hydrogen sulfide is significantly lower than the level at which the gas becomes a health risk. Even at high levels, it does not cause cancer and rarely causes long-term health effects, he said.

Nickle said many of the symptoms citizens are experiencing, which include nausea, headaches, respiratory problems and more, are likely a reaction to the strong odor, not the gas, and should go away once the odor is gone.

The Alabama Department of Public Health has been notified of this issue and will be involved in discussions about potential health risks to citizens as the process moves forward, said TCEMA Director Deborah Gaither.

Andrews said EPA is setting up an office at the site and will have a presence at all times. He also said they will likely have another community meeting to keep citizens informed during the cleanup.

EPA became involved with REEF earlier this month when ADEM reported a large gas bubble trapped under a tarp at the site as well as oily leakage flowing into Shirtee Creek, a violation of the Clean Water Act.

The agencies conducted emergency response to treat and release the trapped gas and installed a system of absorbent booms to absorb leakage into the creek.

Complete records of ADEM’s involvement with REEF can be accessed on the eFile system at www.adem.state.al.us. Updates on the cleanup from EPA can be found at www.epaosc.org/reefwaste.

Contact Emily Adams at eadams@dailyhome.com.

© 2012