In mid-September, an inspector from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management found a leaking pipe between two treatment basins on the REEF site, which REEF employees had blocked with “a pile of dirt.” The inspector said the basins themselves were structurally unsound. And he discovered a strong-smelling dark stain on the bed of Shirtee Creek, which he attributed to REEF.
On Oct. 22, ADEM gave REEF 30 days in which to prepare a plan for bringing the plant into compliance with its state permits. During that period, REEF was to empty the two treatment basins and submit an engineer’s report on the necessary repairs, report any impact the plant’s operation has had on soil and groundwater and submit a plan for remedying those impacts.
REEF, it appears, did not do any of those things. Instead, as the 30-day deadline approached, the company’s lawyers filed an appeal, claiming the order was unconstitutional, illegal, unfair, incorrect, not factual and not based on sound science.
A hearing on the appeal is scheduled for late March.
So from Sept. 16 to March 28, a period of more than six months, nothing will have been done to rectify a known problem.
REEF contends there is no problem.
REEF’s argument is that the contaminant in Shirtee Creek could not have come from its basins. The chemical analysis of the contaminant does not match the contents of the wastewater REEF is treating, and besides, said REEF Managing Partner Kent Hall back in November, “It seems extremely unlikely that our material would be crossing under two creeks and a railroad bed, traveling uphill to a spring head and not showing up somewhere in between.”
Hall makes a good point. Further investigation may well prove that the Shirtee Creek contamination did not come from REEF. But because of the plant’s poor relationship with the local residents, many will never believe it.
When asked last week whether REEF had taken any steps toward complying with ADEM’s order, Hall referred all questions to his attorney, Thomas Brown.
Brown reiterated Hall’s assurance that the Shirtee Creek contaminant did not come from REEF and also denied that wastewater was leaking from REEF’s treatment basins.
The ADEM inspector reported finding evidence that the basins were not structurally sound, and he did not consider pushing a pile of dirt up against a leaking pipe to be an adequate repair. Furthermore, his report said, the REEF plant manager had known the basins were leaking for months but had intentionally delayed making repairs until the water level was lower.
Brown dismissed the inspector’s assessment of the condition of the basins, saying the pipe between the two basins was an air-pressure hose and that wastewater was not leaking from it.
“ADEM characterized that as a leak but misunderstood what it was,” Brown said.
He did not, however, address the inspector’s statement that Hall’s own plant manager had acknowledged the basins were leaking.
ADEM’s order to REEF said that “chemicals of concern” have been released onto soils beneath the facility, and that “soils impacted from operations at the facility represent a potential source of pollutants to waters of the state.”
It is possible that ADEM’s inspector was so incompetent that none of his report was accurate. That’s what REEF claims, and it now appears that the truth won’t be known until the hearing in March, if then.
While the legal wheels grind, whatever it was that the inspector found leaking at the REEF site in September will still be leaking in March.