Reef cleanup coming to an end
by Emily McLain
Feb 23, 2014 | 2451 views |  0 comments | 28 28 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bob Crisp/The Daily Home
EPA on-scene coordinator Jason Booth, pictured, said cleanup at Reef Environmental should be largely complete in about two weeks.
Bob Crisp/The Daily Home

EPA on-scene coordinator Jason Booth, pictured, said cleanup at Reef Environmental should be largely complete in about two weeks.
SYLACAUGA – Cleanup of the Reef Environmental superfund site will be largely complete within two weeks, according to federal on-scene coordinator Jason Booth.

To date, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has treated and disposed of more than 26 million gallons of wastewater and 21,000 tons of solidified sludge from the abandoned industrial waste treatment facility.

“We’ve cleaned everything,” Booth said.

Four contractors are still working at the Twin Street site, and Booth is now making weekly visits, instead of providing full-time supervision, as the project winds down.

“Most of the (contractors) will be gone by the middle of next week,” he said. “Two guys will probably work a little more to cleanup our machinery. As far as water and sludge, everything is pretty much wrapped up. Again, we’re at a stage where we’re trying to clean up everything, smooth out roads, that kind of thing.”

Some minor tasks are still to be done, including disposing of chemicals in an onsite laboratory, installing safety fencing around certain structures and repairing the existing fencing, Booth said.

In the past year and a half, EPA emptied three basins with total capacity of about 14 million gallons, as well as two clarifier basins, drying beds and various other containers. Once brimming with pungent and potentially dangerous wastewater, these structures now hold only inches of rainwater and groundwater.

“It’s basically a pond,” Booth said of an equalization basin onsite. “There are frogs, algae and other organisms living in there. We want these deep basins to fill up with water about halfway for safety reasons and to dilute whatever sludge might be remaining.”

At the start of February, EPA had spent about $4.7 million on cleanup, with another $100,000 in the budget; though Booth said it will probably not reach that budget ceiling. Since the project’s start, $1.2 million was spent on personnel, $2.7 million was spent on field costs including rental equipment, and $150,000 was spent on equipment, in addition to various other expenses.

An unexpected hindrance to the cleanup was the unusual weather Sylacauga experienced in the last year, Booth said, from the high levels of rain last year to the recent snowstorm.

“When your job is to treat water, rain only adds to the amount of work you have,” he said. “The facility holds about 15 million gallons, and we treated 27 million gallons. That was all because of rain. Then the snow set us back, because at that point we were hauling off the sludge, and the sludge was frozen, and then the roads conditions were so bad that truck drivers couldn’t drive. I definitely wish the weather had been better while we were here.”

Overall, Booth said EPA accomplished everything it set out to do, and he feels comfortable leaving the site in the condition it is in.

“I think we did a good job,” he said. “We have cleaned it to a level where the community shouldn’t have to endure what it has in the past as far as the smell. The summer will be the real test of that when everything heats up, but based on what we have done, I would not anticipate any more odor problems.”

As a whole, cleanup has gone well, Booth said, and the city and state have supported EPA’s efforts.

“Everybody has been super helpful when we needed them to be, from the local fire department to ADEM to the Utilities Board,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of cooperation from the city.”

One thing Booth wishes EPA could have accomplished is recouping some of the costs of cleanup, he said. In some cases, EPA can pursue cost recovery, where customers of Reef would be responsible to pay for cleanup costs; however, a “responsible party” must be identified, and this case, that will be difficult, Booth said.

“I haven’t seen every waste profile that’s come into this facility, but it seems to me that what people were shipping to this facility was nonhazardous waste,” he said. “It’s hard for us to recoup money with nonhazardous materials.

“The issue with this facility was adding so many different waste streams. I think that was how this facility got to the horrible state it was in. They couldn’t control it; there were too many things coming in, and the combination basically sucked out all the oxygen in the water, and then the bacteria used the sulfurs in the different materials onsite to create that hydrogen sulfide gas that caused the smell and was a big safety concern when EPA first got involved.”

Calls to EPA and ADEM spokespersons for updates on legal actions against Reef were not returned Wednesday; however, ADEM has several outstanding orders against Reef, and Booth said the state is pursuing orders to require Reef owners to perform site maintenance and conduct a groundwater survey.

Reef operated as a treatment facility serving local auto and oil industries from 2007 to mid-2010, closing soon after the Sylacauga Utilities Board stopped accepting its discharges. Throughout operations and since its closing, residents complained of a strong, rotten odor emanating from the site that some claimed caused respiratory and other serious health issues.

Although Reef lies just outside city limits, Sylacauga Mayor Doug Murphree said he is interested in gaining control of the property once EPA is gone.

“I am meeting with ADEM at the site tomorrow, and one of the things I want to talk to them about is how to make sure somebody can’t come back in there and do the same thing,” Murphree said Wednesday. “As much money as taxpayers have spent on this cleanup, that would be just awful, and I will do everything I can to stop it.”

Murphree said he would like for the city to own the property or at least annex it into city limits so it can be rezoned. He said he is also concerned about the basins filling up with rainwater, which could lead to a serious mosquito problem.

“That’s one of the things I want to get answered so we’ll know what direction we need to go in after EPA is gone,” he said. “I want to do something to end up with some kind of control out there.”

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