Spills threaten Springfield aquifer
- Published: April 25, 2013
About three-and-a-half miles northwest of Springfield’s municipal well field is a landfill where 51,500 barrels of industrial waste were buried in the 1970s. Laid end-to-end, the barrels would stretch for 28 miles. The 55-gallon drums, some containing hazardous wastes like heavy metals, pesticides and volatile organic compounds, are now leaking, and the contents might be traveling towards the underground aquifer used by Springfield to supply the drinking water for more than 80,000 people, according to county health officials.
In addition, some 2.8 miles northeast of the well field, within the past eight years a road salt company stockpiled, and occasionally left uncovered, 50,000 tons of salt without the knowledge of local officials. Runoff from the site contaminated the groundwater, which near the site had sodium chloride levels 100 times federal health and safety guidelines. The salt will reach the Springfield wellheads in 11 years, according to an environmental consultant’s report.
And seven miles north of Springfield, a widespread underground plume of volatile organics and carcinogens like benzene from a plastics molding facility and other industries caused Urbana, about 10 miles north of Springfield, to shut down some of its municipal wells and put in a new well field further north. That plume is now headed in the direction of Springfield, according to the Clark County Soil and Water Conservation District.
As the Village of Yellow Springs eyes Springfield water as an alternative to its local water system, Council and residents are looking closely at the quality and safety of Springfield’s water in the face of several pollution threats. Council members discussed some of the threats at their April 15 meeting.
So far none of these toxic sites has polluted Springfield’s well field, according to City of Springfield officials. None of them is even located within a five-year time-of-travel zone of the well field. There is evidence that the contaminants may take from a decade to hundreds or even thousands of years to reach the well field, and when they do, they will be diluted enough to no longer pose a threat. Some independent geologists suggest the toxins will never actually reach the aquifer used for Springfield’s drinking water.
Furthermore, local officials in Springfield say they are diligently monitoring these sites and others for their potential to contaminate the well field. For example, concerned that a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund cleanup effort at the Tremont barrel fill might fall short of protecting the aquifer, the Clark County health district has gone so far as appealing to the White House to intervene.
“Our number one focus is making sure that nothing contaminates the water supply for tens of thousands of people,” said Clark County Health Commissioner Charles Patterson, who wrote a letter to President Obama urging action to properly clean up the barrel fill site. “It is our number one natural resource in Clark County and we aim to protect it far into the future.”
But in an underground aquifer that’s as susceptible to contamination as the Mad River Aquifer, any pollution threat should be taken seriously, according to soil scientist Julie Weatherington-Rice, who worked for environmental consultant Bennett & Williams on the adjacent “Clark Co.” private landfill site.
“The good news about the Mad is it’s the most prolific aquifer in the state and maybe the country because there’s such an integrated surface-to-groundwater interconnection,” Weatherington-Rice said. “In a bad sense it’s got a lot of potential for pollution.”
Convey-It salt pile
The closest threat to Springfield’s water is a massive salt pile located just north of its five-year time-of-travel zone. A private road salt distribution company, Convey-It, stored massive amounts of salt at its Tremont City Road facility between 2005 and 2009. At certain times, such as when salt was unloaded from rail cars, the pile was left uncovered and rainwater carried large amounts of sodium chloride into nearby streams and into the groundwater, according to a report from Springfield’s environmental consulting firm In Aqua Veritas.
While the U.S. EPA has no primary maximum contaminant level (MCL), or enforceable standard, for chlorides in drinking water, it has established 250 mg/L as a non-enforceable guideline. Groundwater concentrations of sodium chloride at the site reached 26,400 mg/L. At a Clark State Community College truck driving school well near the site, the contaminant measured 6,000 to 8,000 mg/L and the well had to be shut down, according to a report by Jeff Patzke of the Ohio EPA. In addition, cyanide, which is often added to road salt to prevent caking, reached levels of 0.298 mg/L, higher than its primary MCL of 0.2 mg/L.
But by the time the salt plume reaches the Springfield well field its concentration will be a maximum of 130 mg/L, well below EPA standards, according to a model by In Aqua Veritas. Located within the Mad River aquifer and heading south, the plume will reach the Springfield well field in 11 years at those low concentrations. Springfield water treatment plant superintendent Allen Jones, for one, isn’t concerned.
“I really don’t have any concerns because of the amount of water in the ground compared to the amount of salt,” Jones said on a tour of the former salt site with villagers earlier this month. Springfield City Services Director Chris Moore added that there are two monitoring wells tested monthly between the Convey-It site and Springfield’s production wells, so they will be able to keep an eye on the plume.
Tremont City Barrel Fill
Between 1976 and 1979, a Tremont landfill run by Chemical Waste Management, among other private companies, accepted 51,500 barrels of industrial waste, which largely consist of solvent distillation still bottoms, latex glue, soap, asbestos, asbestos water and paint sludge. Along with the barrels, 300,000 gallons of additional toxic waste were dumped straight into the ground. In total, 3 million gallons of waste — about half of it hazardous — fill an 8.5-acre section of the landfill. Predictably, the barrels began to leak, and the aquifers below (there are six of them, according to one geologist) became contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides and volatile organic chemicals. Well samples showed chromium, lead, thallium and bisphthalate and other contaminants above U.S. EPA MCLs. In the late 1990s the site qualified for the U.S. EPA’s Superfund program as one of the most polluted sites in the country, and cleanup efforts began (the site is now part of the Superfund Alternative program).
But after the U.S. EPA proposed a plan in 2010 to remove all the hazardous waste and contaminated soil from the property and treat it off-site, the agency abruptly changed course when, on the last day of a public comment period, Chemical Waste Management, which was to pay the bulk of the cleanup costs, put forward its own plan at half the price. Under that $28 million plan, only the liquid waste from the barrels would be removed, while solid wastes remaining in the barrels, including hazardous wastes, would be reburied onsite in a newly-constructed landfill. At the time, local officials, including the Clark County Combined Health District, the Springfield Commissioners, and the Clark County Commissioners, along with the Ohio EPA, were up in arms, arguing that the plan wouldn’t protect the aquifer used for Springfield’s drinking water.
“If you’re digging the barrels up, why would you go through all this processing on the site and then put the hazardous waste back in the ground?” said County Health Commissioner Patterson in an interview this week. “Our concern is we don’t want anything in the aquifer. We don’t want there to be any infinitesimally remote possibility that this could get close to the wells for the City of Springfield.”
Last fall Patterson wrote a letter opposing the U.S. EPA plan and had it hand-delivered to an aide of President Barack Obama when Obama was campaigning in Springfield. He has yet to receive a response.
The U.S. EPA, which has argued that the new plan actually reduces the contamination risk because with less pollution transported off-site there would be a lower chance of spills and accidents, did not respond to News questions by press time.
What exactly is the threat to Springfield water from the barrel landfill? Geologists views differ. Soil scientist Weatherington-Rice argues that the contamination threat is higher than the U.S. EPA admits. Since the site is already leaking, time-of-travel estimates in the thousands of years are erroneous, she said. And because there are exposed sand and gravel seams along the hillside, rainwater carrying contaminants regularly flows out of the landfill and into a nearby stream, which empties into Chapman Creek and eventually the Mad River. From there it could pollute the aquifer containing Springfield’s water wells, since the river and aquifer systems are interconnected, she said.
But local environmental engineer John Eastman, who consults for the Village of Yellow Springs, argues that there is no evidence that contaminants are making their way down to the deeper aquifer — the one in which the well field is located.
“There are concerns because of the contaminants in the landfill…but there’s also a lot of mitigating factors to protect the Springfield well field from that site more than it’s just beyond the five-year time-of-travel,” Eastman told Yellow Springs Village Council members at their meeting this week.
Wittenberg geology professor John Ritter agreed with Eastman at the Council meeting, adding that the barrel site is not even located on top of the drinking water aquifer. Plus any pollution making its way to the Mad River wouldn’t contaminate the drinking water aquifer, he said, since the groundwater there flows into surface water, not the other way around.
Meanwhile, according to former Antioch College geology professor Peter Townsend, the deeper aquifer could become contaminated, but by the time pollutants reach it, some 300 feet below the landfill elevation, the toxins will be so filtered and diluted they will no longer be dangerous. And if contamination does reach the well field, it will be confined to one well, he added. That well could then be shut down, or used as a decontamination well, Springfield’s service director Moore suggested. But before the pollution reached the production wells, monitoring wells between Springfield and Tremont would pick up a pollution threat, Moore said.
In the late 1980’s, the Ohio EPA found detectable levels of TCE, (trichloroethylene) and benzene, a known carcinogen, in Urbana’s municipal wells on Old Troy Pike Road. Though below EPA maximum contaminant levels, the city was concerned about an advancing plume of volatile organics and moved its well field to the north. The pollution came from numerous sources: an airport, agricultural areas, a feed lot, a burned down plastics plant, an armory, a junk yard, a former underground storage tank, waterways, roadways and railways, according to Urbana’s water superintendent’s comments in the American Waterworks Association newsletter.
While the plume is 10 miles away from the well field, Springfield officials have expressed concern that it may migrate to its wells. According to the 2004 Clark County Soil and Water District report, “Lower Mad River Watershed Protection Project Watershed Action Plan,” Springfield water treatment plant officials have expressed “great concern with this plume of pollution reaching the drinking water supply.” As a result, groundwater monitoring wells were set up between the cities to test for contamination. However, current Springfield officials said they are unaware of any concerns.
No one knows for sure whether pollution at these sites will taint Springfield’s drinking water. Springfield officials seem to be watching them closely. But the potential for contamination remains high, according to Weatherington-Rice. According to Ohio DRASTIC maps, which measure an area’s groundwater pollution potential based upon seven different criteria — from depth to water to aquifer media — the groundwater around the Mad River has a high potential for pollution. Since Springfield’s municipal wells are located in that area, there may be reason for concern, or at least diligence.