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Well-capping raises concern over Vernay plume clean-up

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A proposed well-capping ordinance backed by Vernay Laboratories and the Greene County Combined Health District to prevent contamination from groundwater polluted by Vernay has raised concerns among some neighbors, who view the effort as an attempt by Vernay to circumvent long-term cleanup efforts through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Vernay has said that the EPA itself initially suggested the well-capping ordinance, and that the ordinance would not affect its clean-up efforts. Meanwhile, a county official urged well-capping to protect citizens and the public water supply from known contaminants in the wells.

In line with a 2011 revision to state private water system rules, the local ordinance would prohibit the drilling of any new groundwater wells in the village and require that existing private wells not providing a primary source of water be permanently sealed. Village Council tabled the legislation at its Feb. 4 meeting to learn more about the issue. A committee of Council members Karen Wintrow and Rick Walkey and Village Manager Laura Curliss will report back their findings.

Vernay instigated discussions with the Village and the county health department in 2011 on passing a well-capping ordinance in a move that some say was prompted by hopes that the company could avoid further cleanup of toxic chemicals released at its former manufacturing facility at 875 Dayton St. While Vernay has said that the EPA itself initially suggested the well-capping ordinance, this week an EPA spokesperson responded that the EPA never suggested the ordinance.

“It makes no difference to us what they do [with regards to the ordinance],” said Rafael Gonzalez, a public affairs specialist with the EPA. “It wouldn’t have an impact on what we’re doing …[The ordinance] was not at EPA’s suggestion in any manner, shape or form and never was.”

Since 2002 Vernay has been working under an order of consent with the EPA to remediate a plume of known carcinogens and nervous system toxins in the Cedarville aquifer starting 15 feet beneath the property, which has also spread east and south, and to clean up other pollution associated with the site. Vernay manufactured fluid handling components for the automotive, appliance and medical industries from the early 1950s to 2003, when the company ceased operations at that location. The contaminants of concern include tetrachloroethene, trichloroethene, cis-1,2-dichloroethene, vinyl chloride and 1,2-dichloropropane, vinyl chloride and freon 113.

Marcia Wallgren, who was part of a group of neighbors whose lawsuit against the company led to the EPA cleanup, said she believes that Vernay is trying to avoid more aggressive clean-up measures by pushing for the ordinance.

“I am not against capping wells or preventing new wells if that is necessary,” wrote Wallgren in an email last week. “I am against Vernay using that as an attempt to get a “No Further Action Letter” (i.e. no further cleanup) at a time when the US EPA is asking them to do much further work to reduce risks of exposure to residents.”

Wallgren cited as evidence an April 2011 letter from Vernay to the EPA in which the company contends that it’s technically impractical to address the aquifer contamination by remediating the soil at the site and that using institutional controls, such as a well-capping ordinance, to prevent people drinking water from the aquifer would be more effective. Vernay also suggested in the letter that other sites with similar soil contamination problems were let off the hook by the EPA once such ordinances were in place.

Reached for comment last week, Vernay declined to respond.

Vernay and the EPA have yet to agree to a final corrective measures plan with several key issues of disagreement arising over the course of negotiations, which began in 2009. The EPA, for example, wants Vernay to remediate the soil at its site, which is saturated with chemicals that continue to leak into the groundwater, and to regularly test nearby homes for vapor intrusion, which is when contaminated groundwater off-gasses volatile organic compounds into people’s homes. The EPA maintains that vapor intrusion could pose a cancer threat to residents and recommends indoor air sampling, which Vernay is objecting to because, among other reasons, it raises unnecessary concerns if chemicals from another source are found in the indoor air and could affect property values when this information is disclosed during a sale. The EPA is also pushing for more soil sediment testing of Thistle Creek, which became polluted when contaminated groundwater discharging into a storm sewer drained into the creek less than a half-mile northeast of the Vernay property. According to the EPA, soil contamination there may pose a threat to those who wade in the creek.

As an interim measure, Vernay currently operates four extraction wells on its property to keep contaminants in the aquifer from spreading further (two were installed in 2000 and 2003 and two more were added in 2011). The wells, which have pumped and carbon-filtered 85 million gallons of water through October 2012, will also likely be a part of the final remediation plan. The two wells were added in 2011 because the plume, which was originally measured only under Omar Circle and Wright Street, has now spread as far east as Green Street, according to EPA documents.

Gonzalez of the EPA said he believes that Vernay and the EPA are close to a final corrective measures plan and estimates the proposed plan will be available for public comment this year. Then the EPA will select the final corrective measures for Vernay to implement. Cleanup could start as soon as early 2014. While the EPA can’t force Vernay to undertake a course of action, there could be court challenges if the two parties don’t come to an agreement, Gonzalez said. He added that the negotiations have gone well and that Vernay has been cooperative.

Well capping urged for safety

Vernay isn’t the only one pushing for the well-capping ordinance. The county health department became concerned about contamination last year, when the results of private water well testing in the Vernay area showed levels of toxins exceeding safe drinking water standards, according to Mark Isaacson of the health department. The health department can enforce the state rules itself, but the department prefers to cooperate with a local governing body, he said.

“If a well has shown evidence of contamination or if it’s no longer being used and contamination could be a problem, we could go in and enforce it and tell them to close it,” Isaacson said. “But we don’t typically go knock on someone’s door.”

According to state law, a well that is not the home’s primary water source must be capped unless the well owner demonstrates to the satisfaction of the local health district that the well will not cause or contribute to ground water contamination, present a safety hazard, or present a public health nuisance. Vernay has agreed to pay for the costs of capping the wells in a surrounding “groundwater management zone,” which includes 15 wells, six of which are currently being used by residents. Costs are estimated to be $500 to $1,500 to seal a well, according to the Ohio Department of Public Health.

The main threat concerning the health department is that residents are drinking unsafe well water or that future residents may do so, Isaacson said. There is also a small concern that the public water supply may be threatened. Even though a geologically separate aquifer is used to procure municipal water, a private well drawing water from a contaminated aquifer could potentially contaminate public water system in a home where the well water and public water are both connected to the plumbing system, he explained.

“If you have the two water lines connected together there is the potential for cross-contamination, where the water from the well could get sucked backwards out of the house and into the public water supply,” Isaacson said. First there would have to be a drop in water pressure, from a water main break or the use of a fire hydrant in the area, Isaacason said, before any cross-contamination would occur. In that case, contaminated well water could flow into the water pipes of a nearby home.

To prevent this problem of backflow, the state law requires that those who are using both private and public water supplies install a reverse pressure zone backflow prevention device, at an estimated cost of at least $500. It also has to be inspected annually, at a cost of $100 and up, according to the state health department.

Mark DeLozier, who lives across the street from the Vernay property on Dayton Street, and uses his private well water for drinking and to irrigate his large garden, wants to continue to have access to the free source of water on his property, which has never had levels of contamination recorded that exceeded drinking water standards in annual tests by Vernay, according to DeLozier. While he remains concerned about contamination at the Vernay site, those with clean well tests should be allowed to use the aquifer, he said.

“Throughout the entire history of the testing, the contaminant levels have never been even close to the threshold for drinking water,” DeLozier said. “It would have to be 1,000 times what they’re detecting.”

But other wells in the area showed high levels of contamination in both 2011 and 2012, according to Isaacson. And those wells remain a risk to current and future residents. If the Village failed to pass a well-capping ordinance, Isaacson said the county health commissioner would then decide whether to order that wells be capped anyway.

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