EPA: Army must move faster old base contamination

FOREST PARK, Ga. (AP) — It’s been more than a month since the U.S. Army tested the air in Chad Partin‘s Forest Park home for toxic chemicals and known carcinogens seeping off nearby Fort Gillem, a now-closed base where Army personnel regularly dumped solvents into the soil.

Partin still hasn’t been told the results. And he’s fearful for his 4-year-old son.

“It absolutely worries me, because even if the results come back negative, what about the air my son is breathing when he plays outside? What about the creek behind my house?”

On Wednesday, impatient federal regulators moved to help Partin and other residents get answers. Warning of an imminent danger to human health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered the Army to move faster in testing homes, informing residents of the results and providing help to those homes where risky levels of hazardous chemicals are detected.

The EPA gave the Army 10 days to respond.

The order is the third attempt to get the Army to act on behalf of residents. Gov. Nathan Dealwrote a letter to prod Army officials Sept. 4 and state regulators at the Environmental Protection Division also urged quick action after tests revealed a threat to public health.

State officials said the Army has already missed a key deadline, which gave them 21 days to install mitigation measures — like ventilation systems — in homes with high levels of contaminants.

“EPA believes that an Order is necessary to protect the health of the community and the environment,” said a statement from the the federal agency.

The Army said it is considering how to address the EPA order and will host a series of public information sessions to address community concerns.

“Prompt action to address risks to human health resulting from the Army’s past activities at Fort Gillem remains our top priority for this cleanup effort,” the Army said.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution began reporting on the environmental problems at the base last year. At the time, the EPA was considering making a portion of the base a Superfund site, a designation that would have put it on a list for federal funds created for the cleanup or eradication of toxic waste. But it backed off the threat as state and Army officials appeared to make progress in the cleanup efforts. That effort will impact a planned redevelopment, which officials are hopeful will bring badly-needed jobs to Clayton County. Grocery giant Kroger has planned a distribution center on a portion of the base, which closed in 2011.

Fort Gillem, south of Atlanta, was for decades an Army transportation hub where many military vehicles were repaired and housed. There is a mustard bomb buried on the base but the military maintains it was deactivated. With no laws forbidding it, workers on the base freely dumped dumped motor oil and industrial solvents, saturating the soil and groundwater with hazardous chemicals that have now spread off the base in several plumes. The most worrisome is one that oozes for nearly one mile into an adjacent residential neighborhood.

Residents there have long been warned not to drink the well water. But state officials this summer finally persuaded military brass to conduct vapor intrusion studies of air in the homes near the base to see if chemicals in the groundwater had spread into the air residents breathe.

The initial results were alarming. The EPA said in it’s order Wednesday that data has been evaluated for 17 homes and that at least nine homes warrant immediate mitigation. Six require monitoring and two require additional testing. Air samples have been collected from 56 homes and business so far, the EPA said. Dozens more homes must still be tested.

Among the chemicals found in the homes that need attention is 1,2,4-Trimethylbenzene, a volatile organic compound used as an additive in aviation fuel and gasoline. Acute exposure can lead to headaches and fatigue. Chronic exposure can affect the reproductive system and developing fetus.

The EPA filed the order Wednesday under the Resources Conservation Recovery Act, which is designed to address imminent and substantial endangerment to public health due to past waste handling activities.

The executive director of Greenlaw, an Atlanta-based legal environmental advocacy group, applauded the EPA’s move.

“Residents need to be informed and engaged in this process,” the group’s executive director,Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, said.

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