EPA begins five-year review of Verona pollution

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Major flooding not believed to have disturbed contamination

The Environmental Protection Agency has begun its task scheduled every five years to update the status of the Superfund cleanup in Verona, started 40 years ago with the discovery of dioxin.

The EPA plans to review all the remediation strategies and assess both their successes and the ongoing progress eliminating the public threat from industrial pollution.

The chemical plant in Verona, constructed by the Hoffman-Taff company in 1960, became part of ongoing controversy when it was used to manufacture the notorious chemical defoliant Agent Orange for use by the U.S. military during the final years of Vietnam war. In 1969, Hoffman-Taff leased a portion of a building from April 1970 to January 1972 to the Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company for the manufacture of the disinfectant hexachlorophene for marketing as a soap. Both products created dioxin as a byproduct. NEPACCO, unable to simply dispose of this toxic chemical, packaged dioxin in barrels and buried it across the countryside. NEPACCO operated until 1972.

In 1980, the deteriorating barrels began to surface, leading to an extensive search that traced large quantities to a mine shaft in Baldwin Park in Aurora, the James Denney farm south of Verona, and a trench in the hillside overlooking the chemical plant to the west. By then, the dangers of dioxin had been recognized from the outcries of Vietnam war veterans exposed to Agent Orange, and the work of a disposal company headed by Russell Bliss. Bliss took defoliant stored in a tank at the Verona plant and sprayed on more than 25 locations, including the city of Times Beach, near St. Louis. The Missouri Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced an outbreak of illness and animal deaths back to Bliss and dioxin, and ultimately to Verona.

In December 1982, after record flooding on the Merrimec River, the town of Times Beach was deemed too polluted to restore, so that in February 1983, the EPA announced it would buy out the entire town. At the same time, EPA, having begun the search for buried dioxin around Verona in 1981, established sites in and around Verona as a Superfund cleanup site in 1983.

Locally, the EPA brought in a soil incinerator known as the Blue Goose to destroy the unearthed dioxin and soil exposed to it. Located on the Denney farm, the Blue Goose finished its work in 1989. Remedies such as capping ground exposed to dioxin that was not excavated, especially around the chemical plant, went in place. Operators of the chemical plant continued to store hazardous waste in the drum storage area on plant property, known as the trench, until 1996. The trench was subsequently sealed. To this day, the contents of the trench are either unknown or have not been made public.

NEPACCO went bankrupt in the 1970s, placing responsibility for the cleanup on Syntex Agribusiness, which purchased the Verona plant from Hoffman-Taff in 1969. To this day, Syntex, a division of Syntex Agribusiness of Delaware, continues as the primary agent pursuing the cleanup, reporting to the EPA. Syntex is listed as a for-profit corporation operating in Missouri, through its agent, CT Corporation System with an office in Clayton. Syntex has another division in Colorado.

The EPA has issued very detailed five-year reports on the cleanup since 1997, and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources issues an annual report on the Superfund sites.

Concern about pollution issues in Verona subsided until December 2018, when the Bontranger family, complaining of undiagnosed mysterious illness among its children, moved from their farm downstream from the chemical plant, selling the property to Syntex, which erected a security fence and posted a guard. EPA and Syntex’s spokesman revealed the existence of a plume of 1,4-dioxane emanating from the vicinity of the plant. An ether-like substance that can pass through soil, 1,4-dioxane appeared to potentially endanger to water table.

According to reports through the Bontranger family, the health of the children improved after the family moved out of state. EPA officials subsequently capped the water well on the property, deeming it problematic. Quantities of dioxane on the Bontranger property initially measured 300 times the safe limit set by EPA.

Syntex purchased the Bontranger land to increase its network of test wells to measure the dioxane plume. The pollutant, found in many places around the nation, is controversial with uncertain side effects, including links to cancer. Subsequent tests by EPA have failed to reproduce the findings of high quantities of 1,4-dioxane on the Bontranger land. EPA continues to state the plume remains confined to the Superfund site. Residents within the Verona city limits receive drinking water from Liberty Utilities, pumped in from Aurora, thus reducing concern in the immediate area around the chemical plant.

The source of the dioxane, though centered around the plant, remains unknown, as well as its history. Manufacture of the feed supplement choline chloride, which may have been made in Verona as early as the 1960s, created 1,4-dioxane as a byproduct. EPA officials first detected the dioxane in 2008, possibly from improved technology. The chemical plant in Verona has been run for 20 years by BCP Ingredients, a division of Balchem, an international chemical company. BCP Ingredients makes choline chloride as one of many food and feed additives. The company says it has eliminated the creation of 1,4-dioxane in its process and denies that the plume is emanating from its plant and ongoing operations.

During a meeting at Verona City Hall in October 2019, Amy Algoe-Eakin, EPA branch chief over air permitting and standards, revealed another source of concern. BCP Ingredients and its predecessors had a long history of emitting significant quantities of ethylene oxide into the air. Ethylene oxide is recognized as a potential carcinogen and has been linked to breast cancer.

The five-year review, according to Dr. Brian Zurbuchen, EPA project manager for the Verona cleanup effort, will evaluate the current situation and the work remaining. Specifically, the EPA has concerns about all three pollution sources, though the Superfund review will only focus on the dioxin and the 1,4-dioxane. Recent events will affect the review.

One of those issues was major flooding of Spring River that took place on May 17 and 18. Zurbuchen characterized the event as “greater than 100-year flooding.” Flooding was severe enough to uproot fencing around the plant, move an outbuilding on the plant grounds and flood the footings of a major multi-story construction project east of the existing plant. Additional digging took place to remount the fencing. Digging around the plant has been an issue in the past, where even displacing dirt to build a sidewalk leading into the plant prompted protests from the Missouri DNR.

According to an environmental covenant signed in 2018, both Syntex and BCP Ingredients reported that “remedies were still in place,” Zurbuchen said.

“We believe the soil with vegetative covers, asphalt and monitoring wells were not compromised,” he said. “We require the parties to respond truthfully. There are strong penalties for not doing so, not that we take their word for it. We often ask for photographs. We are continuing to follow up on it.”

Ben Washburn, public engagement and communications services section in the EPA’s office of public affairs, said it is routine for the EPA to coordinate with responsible parties to make sure remedies remain protective.

While there had been speculation that the 1,4-dioxane pool could move depending on subsoil water movement, Zurbuchen considered saw little reason for concern there.

“1,4-dioxane dissolves in water,” Zurbuchen said. “It’s not a giant reservoir of dioxane. It’s not a concern with the water table rising. We want to know where it’s coming from and if it’s increasing. We have a lot of data. Syntex has submitted numerous reports. We know a lot about where it is on the east area of the plant, and where its highest concentrations are. We’re talking to all the parties we think are contributing to the 1,4-dioxane at the site.”

Following three public meetings about pollution concerns in Verona in 2019, EPA undertook domestic well sampling within two miles of the chemical plant to allay concerns over spread of dioxane into rural well water. Private sampling was not possible due to the difficulty of detecting the pollutant. Two more rounds of tests took place in 2020 “to get full coverage” on more than 90 wells, with three quarterly follow-ups. Zurbuchen said tests sampled for the “entire suite of contaminants,” not just 1,4-dioxane.

“The good news is none of the results showed contaminants above relevant EPA standards,” he said.

The five-year review will entail reviewing all the data, Zurbuchen continued, “to evaluate the protectiveness of the remedies.” This includes reviewing the trench area, one of the areas of investigation in the 2016 order with Syntex. Some dioxin is known to be in that area, he continued, along with other manufacturing waste. Dioxin binds strongly to soil and is not known to dissolve in water. Zurbuchen said the investigation would use geotechnical analysis as well as ground water sampling.

“Capping is a common remedy to address contaminated areas,” he said. “The area is fences and signed to prevent exposures. That is the remedy. We will look at it again.”

During the public meetings, concerns surfaced that the James Denney farm, now in different ownership from the Blue Goose days, no longer had required protections on the area that held the dioxin. DNR officials confirmed the concerns in their annual report. The farm had been placed on the Missouri Registry of Confirmed Abandoned or Uncontrolled Hazardous Waste Disposal Sites in January 1992, requiring annual assessment. DNR issued the following statement on its review:

“In September 2019, the department conducted a site survey to locate the four monuments marking the boundaries of the Denney Farm capped trench area. The department marked the monuments with metal survey stakes and recorded the locations with GPS coordinates. We noted at the inspection that woody growth, trees and animal burrows were still located on the cap. The department did not conduct an inspection in 2020 due to COVID travel restrictions, but did conduct an inspection in March 2021. During that visit, inspectors noted the animal burrows and tree growth on the cap were still present. The vegetation had been mowed by a neighboring property owner. The fencing is still intact.

“Cap repair and maintenance needs to be conducted at the Denney Farm site and the department is currently in negotiations with Syntex to conduct this work. However, there is no current exposure to hazardous substances from the site. The cap on the site consisted of two 3-inch layers of sand, separated by a plastic liner, and another 6 inches of clean topsoil over the waste left in place. The tree growth and animal burrowing has not penetrated below the 12-inch cap. Further, in December 2019 and February 2020, the EPA sampled 18 domestic wells in the vicinity of the Denney Farm site in response to concerns from the public. The water samples were analyzed for volatile organic compounds, semi-volatile organic compounds and dioxins. None of the private wells sampled near the Denney Farm site were found to be impacted.”

Issues about ethylene oxide, not part of the original pollution concerns covered by the Superfund cleanup order, remain outside the five-year review. DNR, noting EPA’s Region 7 has primary authority over ethylene oxide issues at the BCP Ingredients plant, provided this update:

“BCP Ingredients in Verona has been voluntarily working to better characterize and reduce their ethylene oxide emissions to ambient air. BCP Ingredients reports their ethylene oxide air emissions to the department annually and these reports indicate annual trends in ethylene oxide emissions have decreased since 2017. BCP Ingredients reported 1.81 tons of ethylene oxide emissions for calendar year 2017. In calendar year 2020, BCP Ingredients reported 0.49 tons of ethylene oxide emissions.”

The 2020 quantity reflected a decrease of slightly more than 22 pounds of ethylene oxide from 2019, part of three years of consecutive declines.

Zurbuchen said the five-year review would cover changes in methodology and toxicity assessments. Improved technology could provide different results than detected in past tests. He expected the final report to be available by next September at the latest, but more likely by mid-year.

“Much of the work has been done,” Zurbuchen said. “Most of those issues have been resolved. EPA is committed to the continuing protection of the Verona community. These reviews are important.”

According to Pamela Houston with EPA’s public affairs office, the EPA still offers financial support to communities that organize a community advisory group to review Superfund cleanups. Grant money is available to interpret data gathered by Syntex for EPA or to hire a specialist to make that assessment. To date, no such organization has formed in Verona. The city government through its attorney Ken Reynolds repeatedly appealed to EPA as well as state and federal elected officials for funding to gather test data independent of both Syntex and EPA. No results came from those requests.

A fact sheet on the Verona Superfund site and cleanup effort is available online at www.epa.gov/mo/syntex-facility-national-priorities-list-npl-superfund-site-veron....

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