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Vernay site cleanup plans reviewed

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It’s been seven years since Vernay Laboratories signed an order of consent with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to remediate the contamination centered on the former manufacturing facility on Dayton Street. Since that time, the company has moved its rubber parts production to Georgia and South Carolina, torn down the Dayton Street plant, welcomed Ed Urquhart as its new chief executive officer, and continued to test the dozens of wells on and around the Dayton Street property to investigate the extent of the pollution plume. Amidst all this change, Vernay and the EPA are finally entering the final phase of consent, in which the two parties settle on the best final corrective measures to protect residents and the environment from harm.

Both Vernay and EPA officials declined last week to provide much comment on the initial draft of the final remediation plans proposed earlier this year by Vernay’s consultants, The Payne Firm, Inc. and Environ International Corporation. Both parties are also waiting until the EPA has had sufficient time to analyze and respond to the Payne report before invoking a public comment period, EPA project manager Bob Egan said last week. Egan could not predict when the public input period would begin, but he said that the EPA has been reviewing the report since spring 2009 and is obliged to provide public notice before a public hearing takes place.

“It’s premature until we come up with a final consensus on our end,” Egan said.

Vernay’s Environmental Affairs and Safety Manager Doug Fisher stated in a fax last week, “The ongoing environmental investigation and remediation is the subject of an order reached by consent between US EPA and Vernay. Vernay has met all of its obligations under the order, and US EPA is currently considering its choice of the appropriate remedy for the site and the surrounding area.”

While the EPA is withholding judgment, the oversight consultant of the group of local citizens who settled an environmental lawsuit with Vernay in 2002 has plenty to say about the company’s proposed corrective measures. That firm, EHS Technology Group, says the remediation plans are inadequate. An EHS review of the proposal addressed to the EPA earlier this year states, “Adopting Vernay’s and Payne’s preferred corrective measures proposal would reward Vernay’s release of so much contamination by protecting them from the true costs of cleaning up the site.”

While Vernay is officially beholden only to the EPA, Egan said that the government agency has read the EHS review of the proposal and will take those comments into consideration when arbitrating a decision.

Vernay’s proposal for cleanup

Based on the findings of its chemical and geological investigation, the Payne firm recommends that Vernay continue for the next 60 years to extract (capture) and treat groundwater through two wells at the Dayton Street site and to monitor the downgradient wells for contamination, adjusting the plan as needed if the contamination spreads. According to the report, the two capture wells have operated since 2000 and 2003, and have achieved a capture zone that encompasses the Vernay site and the Rabbit Run property to the east of it, where groundwater use is restricted, as it also is in other neighboring properties.

Payne chose this solution as the “most protective and cost effective” of four possible alternatives, acknowledging that even with this measure, “contaminants in soil would continue to leach into ground water and likely contribute to unacceptable ground water concentrations at the site for at least 30 years,” and that the “restoration of the aquifer for potable purposes would likely take longer than 60 years.” But no remediation plan, the report states, is capable of total cleanup due to the heavy contaminants that have leeched down to the glacial and bedrock aquifers.

The contaminants of interest according to the EHS report are tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethylene, freon and 1,2 dichloropropane, mostly volatile solvents which have been found on the Vernay site in concentrations of 5 to 100,000 parts per billion (ppb) within four feet of the surface and in higher concentrations of 100,000 to 1 million ppb at depths below eight feet. According to California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard, concentrations of freon over 100,000 ppb can be harmful, and the U.S. EPA lists the maximum contamination level for the other three as 5 ppb.

Vernay found contaminants on its Dayton Street property during an internal investigation in 1989, Fisher told the News in 2002. The company began remediation with the Ohio EPA, continuing until 1998, when more contaminants were found. Vernay enrolled in the EPA’s Voluntary Action Program, until the neighbors’ lawsuit superceded the cleanup and resulted in the 2002 order of consent.

The cost of the proposed corrective measure is estimated by Payne to be approximately $3 million over 30 years, or about $100,000 per year. Though remediation is expected to continue for 60 years, that cost cannot be assessed. Additional source treatment was considered at an added cost of $2–4 million over the same period but was found to provide little additional benefit, the Payne firm concluded.

EHS critiques remediation plan

The main grievance from EHS concerns a flaw in Payne’s geological calculations, which EHS believes underestimate the flow of contaminants over time to the east of the Vernay site and onto residential properties and into Vernay’s old storm sewer lines. That gradual increase in the contamination plume is not adequately mitigated by the two extraction wells, which “grossly overestimate the capture area” and “falsely imply that complete capture has been achieved,” the EHS review states.

Based on its own technical analysis, EHS recommends that in addition to Payne’s proposed measures, Vernay should recalculate its geological assessment, install a series of additional capture wells, excavate and dispose of soils with elevated contaminant concentrations, relocate sewer lines away from the contaminated area and increase monitoring activities. According to the review, these additional measures are needed to gain an accurate understanding of the dynamics of the changing contamination picture. Until those measures are implemented, EHS concludes, “proposals for long-term corrective action are premature.”

Notably, EHS also raises the concern that the demolition in January 2009 of the manufacturing facility, where highly concentrated contaminants are now exposed to rainwater, will likely increase the concentration of additional volumes of contaminants flushing through the groundwater.

Other opinions

Outside engineers and neighbors of the Vernay property have waded into the Payne and EHS documents and have come away with ideas and some concerns. Because Home, Inc. has an option to purchase Rabbit Run farm for a potential housing development, the local housing group wanted an independent opinion on the long-term potential health risks to future residents of the farm. That consultant, Norton Engineering out of Dayton, did not have strong objections to Payne’s proposed solution.

Though Rabbit Run was the only property of concern during his review, engineer John Norton believes the proposed measures are reasonable. Because the pollutants are heavier than water and therefore sink, current off-site contamination is too far below ground to harm people, he said in an interview earlier this month. And he added, the current corrective measures keep the contamination from getting worse. Norton suspects that if anything, the EPA would require Vernay to install more capture wells at the site to treat a greater volume of groundwater, especially since the demolition of the facility will likely increase the level of contaminants. He was also reassured to find that the well water at Rabbit Run is still at a drinkable standard, though as a precaution, the farm’s well is capped and the water use is legally restricted to Village water.

Local resident Richard Robertson, who has subcontracted for Norton and worked for both Ohio EPA and another Dayton engineering firm, also feels comfortable with the solution Payne and Vernay propose. The contamination can never be fully removed, he said, but the current measures appear to him to be working.

“I don’t see it as presenting a problem to anyone in the future,” Robertson said. “It will probably be 100 years before it gets to the Village well, and by that time it will be so attenuated that it will be in parts per trillion.”

As an interested neighbor of Vernay and a former chemist at YSI, Tom LaMers has researched the reports and feels a little more wary. While nearby residents are safe using Village water, he said, LaMers is concerned that everyone living above the underground plume is at risk of toxic vapors seeping into their homes and should consider filtering their indoor air. He also feels that a solution that requires the company to be responsible for maintaining capture wells for 60 years is at risk of being undermined by Vernay changing ownership or being purchased by another company in the future.

Rather than rely on a long-term, low-grade solution, his ideal solution would be to excavate and neutralize the contaminated areas on the Vernay property.

“More is always better,” he said in support of some of EHS’s recommendations. LaMers also recalled the thorough environmental cleanup YSI implemented over the past decade, and by contrast commented that “Vernay has consistently done the least costly thing to satisfy local concerns.”

Speaking for the neighbors involved in the lawsuit, who are overseeing the cleanup, Cincinnati attorney David Altman said that if EHS agreed with Payne’s proposal, “EHS has every reason to say so,” because they are getting paid either way. The concerns of the oversight firm are valid, he said.

“Especially people who live to the east [of Vernay] need to be aware and get a hold of the report and show it to consultants,” Altman said. “Our goal in taking money into this oversight effort is to make sure there is a thorough cleanup — and according to EHS, there isn’t.”

After the EPA has communicated with Vernay about the proposed final corrective measures and given the company a chance to respond to concerns, the EPA will open a public review and comment period, yet to be announced. Following the public input, the EPA will select the preferred corrective measures plan and then negotiate a Corrective Measures Implementation Order with Vernay that details the terms of the chosen remedy.

The public can access all reports from the Payne group and EHS consultants at the Yellow Springs Library. The EPA has also posted some materials online at

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One Response to “Vernay site cleanup plans reviewed”

  1. Mark Chesler says:

    …In a June 26, 1994, Cleveland Plain Dealer article entitled Environmentalists Leery of Possible Loopholes, Chris Trepal, co-director of the Earth Day Coalition in Northeast Ohio, lambasted the enabling VAP legislation as “one of the poorest public policy measures I’ve ever seen.” A clairvoyant Richard Sahli, executive director of the Ohio Environmental Council, echoed his sentiment in the May 26,1994, Cincinnati Post, “We do predict there will be a lot of shoddy cleanups under this bill the state will never catch.” Testifying before the House Energy & Natural Resources Committee on behalf of the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers, Cincinnati environmental lawyer David Altman asserted, “This bill is a definite bait-and-switch. What it is supposed to do and what it does is two different things.”

    A seminal, 152 page 2001 Gund Foundation funded study by the Green Environmental Council confirmed the critics’ predictions. A dearth of agency resources to provide meaningful regulatory oversight combined with the lack of a credible, established enforcement mechanism has rendered the feckless, industry aligned program toothless. “It’s a broken program – it doesn’t work,” declared the council’s Bruce Cornett in an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Both the Sierra Club and Ohio Citizen Action opposed the 2000 $400 million Clean Ohio state bond issue out of concern the fungible proceeds could be utilized to prop up the lame Voluntary Action Program and create a trojan horse polluters slush fund. “This is the governor’s attempt to whitewash his EPA,” charged Jane Forrest Redfern, environmental projects director for Ohio Citizen Action in a November 1, 2000, Cleveland Plain Dealer article. Dedicated professionals, veteran Ohio EPA bureaucrats attempted to rectify the problem. According to the October 4, 2000, Cleveland Plain Dealer, “EPA staffers who shared some of the environmentalists’ concerns, at one point launched a quiet but unsuccessful campaign to disband the program.”

    For six years after the Voluntary Action Program’s 1996 implementation, the U.S. EPA refused to extend program participants federal immunity and threatened to decertify the Ohio EPA due to the VAP’s expansive, inhibiting secrecy provisions and tangible lack of transparency. In a brokered, bifurcated modification to the Ohio VAP that “frankly doesn’t make sense at all,” according to Ohio Public Interest Research Group director Amy Simpson (Akron Beacon Journal, February 24, 2001), an alternative “memorandum of agreement” VAP track with enhanced public access was crafted. Companies that elect the original, opaque, “classic” option, which conceals under an embargo the extent and nature of contamination, will not be afforded U.S. EPA liability insulation. “Why Ohio would want a two-headed monster is beyond me,” quipped the Ohio Environmental Council’s Jack Shaner. In SCA’s case, the jaundiced, green and incompliant wants to hide what you can’t see.

    Mark Chesler
    Oberlin, Ohio

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