EPA to treat and discharge REEF waste onsite
by Emily Adams
SYLACAUGA – The roughly 14 million gallons of remaining wastewater at the REEF site will be treated onsite and discharged into Shirtee Creek, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said at a community meeting Tuesday night.

Federal on-scene coordinator David Andrews said the next phase of work at the former wastewater treatment facility involves bringing in equipment and also using existing resources at the site to treat the waste to the point where it can legally be discharged into the creek.

EPA has already implemented a hydrogen peroxide treatment to kill the odor-causing bacteria produced by the waste and removed a layer of rotten oil from one of the wastewater basins that also contributed to the noxious smell. Subsequent stages of treatment will involve aeration, filtering with sand and activated carbon and several other steps to drop the metals and other constituents in the waste, Andrews said. The equipment to begin the discharge process should be in by the beginning of February.

The time frame for the discharges is still up in the air, according to Paul Rogers of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

“We have to determine what kind of retention time we need to get the treatment process done to a point where the water is safe to put back in the creek,” he said. “ItÕs going to take some experimentation with the system.”

EPA does have a window until April to discharge at a higher rate before the dry season comes, Rogers said.

About $800,000 has been spent on cleanup efforts to this point, and another $1.4 million is in the budget for the next phase of work, which should carry them about 80 percent through the project, Andrews said. EPA is currently pursuing cost recovery options, which may involve calling on former REEF customers.

Many of the questions from citizens at TuesdayÕs meeting focused on what could have been done to prevent this situation from the start. Now bankrupt, REEF operated from around 2007 to late 2010, leaving millions of gallons of untreated waste when it closed. The waste sat at the site for nearly two years before EPA began the cleanup process in October after a serious health risks arose.

“I try to look at the situation as objectively as possible, but you do stand back and think what could have happened differently to prevent this?” Andrews said. “My agency will typically respond to true accidents, but this was a little more than an accident. This was really preventable.”

Rogers said ADEM only has a certain level of authority that mainly involves legal action.

“We can’t just kick people’s door down and take over things,” Rogers said. “We try to do the right thing. It takes a while to go through our process with the rules and regulations and laws we have to follow; I can’t give you anymore than that. The legislation available to us, we have to follow certain procedures, and unfortunately, they take a long time.”

ADEM is taking steps to prevent another company from using the REEF facility once cleanup is complete, however. Rogers said their legal team is looking into what they can do since they do not own the property, but ADEM is hoping to bust holes in the bottom of the basins onsite and fill them with dirt. He added that he “would not foresee another facility like (REEF) getting permitted at the site, ever.”

There is also the possibility of criminal action against REEF owners, but Rogers and Andrews said EPA’s Criminal Investigations Division does its work quietly and would not announce anything unless charges are filed.

“They have done a lot of investigation out here; that’s all I can honestly say,” Andrews said.

Andrews said EPA is proud of its work at the site, and its employees empathize with what citizens have dealt with for nearly six years.

“I’m very proud to help this community,” he said. “I can’t tell you how much job satisfaction that is, but you have suffered years before I showed up here. I’m not going to apologize for the former owners and operators here. They had an opportunity. When we’re digging through all this, we’ve seen a company that really could’ve done something good in this community, but they fell short and then left, in frustration or whatever, with the gas stove on.”

EPA will likely hold another community meeting within one to two months. For online updates from EPA, visit www.epaosc.org/reefwaste.

Contact Emily Adams at eadams@dailyhome.com.

© 2013