EPA changing course on REEF treatment
by Emily Adams
SYLACAUGA — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is slightly changing course at REEF Environmental as it continues to assess the abandoned waste treatment facility.

Earlier this month, the EPA was involved in a bidding process for a technology to kill the odor-causing bacteria in REEF’s wastewater basins; however, that option proved to be an impractical choice, said federal on-scene coordinator David Andrews.

“That was an extremely expensive process that would’ve worked, but would not have been a good fit for treating the waste through several stages,” he said.

Instead, EPA is proceeding with a similar, but cost-effective treatment using industrial-strength hydrogen peroxide.

When placed in the three basins, which hold a combined 13 million gallons of untreated wastewater, hydrogen peroxide will oxidize the hydrogen sulfide gas produced by the waste to eliminate the strong odor while also treating the chemicals involved.

Andrews said odor remains the No. 1 concern, but they are moving closer toward a long-term plan.

“I’m petitioning for funds to support our proposed plan, and from that, implement treatments to initially curb the odor and serve as the first major step in actual treatment,” he said. “We hope to get at least this one step done before Christmas, and that would be a phenomenal gift for the community and a doable one.”

Wastewater treatment engineers from across the country are working on the cleanup plan, Andrews said, which is complicated by several factors.

“What we’re challenged with is an abandoned site and walking in and dealing with large volume of waste in various stages of treatment,” he said.

EPA is sampling the site and using that data to custom-fit a treatment scheme for the specific waste in each basin.

“We take this seriously, because we’re doing this right next to a residential area, so if anything goes bad, you could affect the neighbors,” Andrews said. “So, we’re not going to move fast enough for neighbors be satisfied with odor control, but we have to be very careful about how we choose and implement treatment.”

EPA has made some tangible progress, however. It has emptied the 50,000 square foot drying beds that held oily materials and installed an interceptor trench to catch leakage that was flowing from a cracked equalization basin into Shirtee Creek. They also continue to conduct air monitoring at the site and in surrounding areas.

Andrews said they plan to fully and properly treat and dispose of the on-site wastewater, which is a lengthy process he is unconvinced the now-bankrupt REEF complied with while it was in operation from 2007 to 2011.

“In my opinion, REEF did minimal treatment, which is what got it in trouble and ultimately got it cut off by the Utilities Board,” he said.

When the plant was originally constructed for Avondale Mills, it was a perfect fit, Andrews said, but it was likely not right for the industrial treatments performed by REEF.

“It was a pretty ambitious move for the people that came in,” he said. “The site had the bones for a system, and it looks like they put a lot of money into the equipment, but did it actually treat what was going in? We’re going to raise that question. What discharged looks more and more like diluted waste versus actually treated water.”

Reimbursement for cleanup is being sought from the former owners and operators of the Prattville-based company, and legal charges are a possibility, Andrews said.

“They have a right to (file for bankruptcy), but it’s frustrating to me, because it’s like leaving something still potentially dangerous in operation,” he said. “Whether it’s a civil or criminal liability, that’s out of my hands, but we have people aggressively going after cost recovery. It’s not over once I leave the site, believe me.”

Previous customers of REEF may also be involved in cost recovery.

For updates from EPA, visit www.epaosc.org/reefwaste.

Contact Emily Adams at eadams@dailyhome.com.

© 2012