Friday, January 13, 2006

Chemical plant report public

January 13,2006
Kaitlin Bell
The Monitor


MISSION — Four chemicals soaked into the soil at the old Hayes-Sammons chemical plant are more than 100 times what the state calls safe for industrial sites, according to a long-awaited report from the Environmental Protection Agency.

In fact, soil at the plant contains concentrations of at least 13 chemical compounds that exceed levels the state deems safe for human exposure, according to the report released Thursday.

The several-hundred-page report, which includes lots of numbers but little analysis, culls data EPA contractors took in late August from the six-acre site. The contractors tested soil at different depths below the surface, vapors in above-ground storage tanks, air in two locations and swabs from inside three buildings. The testing was done to determine whether 21 pesticide chemical compounds known to have been present when the plant on Holland Avenue closed in 1972 still remained.

Although the plant sits across from homes, the EPA used the state standard for industrial contamination, not the stricter standard that applies to residential areas.

The EPA’s director on the project, Scott Harris, cautioned people not to assume the elevated chemical levels are necessarily hazardous.

"The number means nothing if you don’t know what the exposure is," said Harris, who is based in the Dallas area, during a telephone interview. "If you’re not exposed to something, it can’t hurt you."

Elected officials, community activists and neighborhood residents who claim to have suffered medical problems from chemical exposure hailed the report as long-delayed evidence that the site remained dangerously contaminated.

"All of this confirms the suspicion we’ve had that this is still a very toxic site," said U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, who distributed the report at a press conference at his McAllen office on North 15th Street.

But, Doggett said, the report does not answer the most important questions: whether the chemicals are present in dangerous levels in people who worked at the plant or lived nearby, and whether they caused serious medical problems and death.

"It looked at dirt. It didn’t look at people," Doggett said. Harris said it was not the report’s intent to measure chemical levels in people.

Doggett has been battling with EPA officials for some time now, pushing them first for testing and then to release the report they had originally promised for October. On Wednesday, EPA officials didn’t appear as if they would release the report this week, saying Doggett’s plans for a press conference Thursday wouldn’t affect their timeline. Yet, the EPA posted the report on its Web site the morning of Doggett’s press conference.

At the press conference, Doggett blasted the EPA for dragging its feet in releasing the report and reiterated prior calls for remediation of the site, further testing in surrounding neighborhoods and compensation for neighborhood residents.

The EPA also should do more testing of the air, said the congressman to a crowd of several dozen people who included lawyers involved in class action and other lawsuits regarding the site.

Neil Carman, a former state environmental inspector whom Doggett brought to explain the report’s findings, described the findings as troubling and the testing as inadequate.

"These pesticides are known to interfere and block the hormone systems in the body," said Carman, who for 12 years inspected industrial plants for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and now heads the Clean Air Division for Sierra Club’s Texas division.

Carman said the on-site chemicals, which belong to a class called organochlorines, can cause serious reproductive, as well as pituitary and thyroid problems.

He said he trusted the data itself but criticized the EPA for only taking dust samples from the air on a single day, rather than over a longer period of time — possibly explaining why scientists did not find toxic amounts of chemicals in the dust they tested.

In the report, contractors reported a swab taken from the wood ceiling in one of the site’s buildings contains twice the maximum amount the state allows for toxaphene when it is found in soil. Toxaphene is a pesticide the EPA banned in 1990 because of studies that linked it to reproductive and central nervous system damage, among other ailments.

However, there is no official benchmark for toxaphene levels found in buildings, to adequately say whether the chemical’s presence in the wood is truly hazardous. The report noted the wood is unlikely to pose a threat to humans now, but that it could in the future if the building deteriorates further and bits of wood fall to the ground.

Neighborhood residents reacted emotionally to the results as presented to them at Doggett’s press conference. Several thanked Doggett profusely for his help and dedication and shared stories about themselves or family members who they say suffered cancers or other serious medical problems because of the chemical fumes coming from Hayes-Sammons.

Doggett said he intended to continue pressing the EPA for more action, including a cleanup. But he cautioned that it would be overly optimistic to expect much help from the agency, which he said has displayed a "conscious indifference" to environmental issues in recent years.

The EPA has promised to release a second report detailing its recommendations for site remediation within a few weeks. First, it will hold a community meeting soliciting feedback from community residents on Jan. 26, Harris said.

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Kaitlin Bell covers Mission, Starr County and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach her at (956) 683-4446.
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