Calhoun County officials say levels of contaminants found in the dirt after testing are so low that they do not pose a threat to human health.
“It has PCB in it but it’s nothing to be concerned about,” said David Pirritano, the county’s environmental enforcement officer. “It had low parts per million, but it did have parts per million.”
The dirt is from ditches in and around west Anniston that had been contaminated with lead and PCBs. The soil at the county barn in Oxford was removed from these ditches to address emergency maintenance concerns such as flooding, Calhoun County Engineer Brian Rosenbalm said.
The soil has been collecting at the barn for about five years, but during the past month the Highway Department has been moving the soil to a landfill designed to contain contaminants. According to Rosenbalm, the county has transported about 200 dump truck loads of potentially polluted soil over a route of approximately 40 miles (based on a map reading) during that time.
It’s not uncommon to stockpile potentially polluted soil, as in the case of the county barn, but there are many variables that determine how the soil should be kept, said Jim Grassiano, chief of compliance assistance with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. Some of those variables would include the level of contaminants in the soil, how it was stored and how it is being transported.
Grassiano received a complaint about the ongoing soil transport at the county barn and turned the information over to officials in the land and water divisions of the state environmental department. The information could result in an investigation, he said, but as of late Wednesday no such investigation had begun.
According to Grassiano, a Toxicity Characteristic Leeching Procedure — a test that can determine if soil is toxic — came back negative for the five soil samples taken from the dirt at the county barn.
According to Pirritano, PCBs were detected in the soil sample at 0.33 parts per million. That is less than the 1 part per million the government considers to be a threat to human health in surface soil, according to Grassiano.
The county is balancing public health concerns with its own financial worries. Officials said it will likely cost between $50,000 and $65,000 in landfill fees to properly dispose of the dirt piled up at the county barn.
A total cost for the operation must also include the cost of fuel used to transport the dirt to Moody and the cost of tests employed to determine if the soil is polluted, officials said. It also must take into account the expense the county will ultimately incur from road maintenance issues that result from unkempt ditches.
Monsanto manufactured PCBs — short for polychlorinated biphenyls — at its plant in west Anniston for decades. A pair of lawsuits settled in 2003 required the company’s successors to remove contaminated soil from private property. Meanwhile, foundries throughout west Anniston used lead in their manufacturing processes, and much of that heavy metal wound up contaminating property in and around the city. A consortium of those industries recently completed a project to remove lead-contaminated soil from private property.
The county has been unable to maintain ditches in the contaminated area since polluted lawns in the affected area were excavated and replaced with new dirt.
Pirritano said that’s because while the yards were tested and cleared of PCBs and lead, the ditches were left alone because they were outside of the perimeter the federal government ordered cleaned.
Ditch work, he said, could spread pollutants that might be kept in the ditches. So the county has let them grow up to avoid stirring PCBs and lead that might have settled there.
Now workers only tend to the ditches on an emergency basis, when flooding threatens to spill over onto adjacent properties. And the dirt from that emergency work is the soil that’s being removed from the county barn, officials have said.
Before county officials can begin routinely maintaining the ditches, the earth in them must be tested and cleared of pollutants, Pirritano said. The cost associated with that work is too much for the county, so county officials are now, as they have before, asking the Environmental Protection Agency to step in. A letter asking for intervention is being drafted now and could be sent to the federal agency within a month’s time, he said.
“We want them to make the people responsible for the pollution, one, reimburse us for the cost we’ve already put out, and two, make our ditches clean,” Pirritano said.
At the county barn, chalky dirt tracks on the paved road lead away from the county barn. Some residents worry the soil contains contaminants that could harm the surrounding environment.
“There are people down there who have livestock and they are concerned about it,” said Steve Cook, who lives about a half mile from the barn.
County workers lined the drive with gravel and covered the dump trucks with tarps to prevent the dirt from spilling out onto the ground. But, Rosenbalm said, the potential for tracking some dirt remains.
“We have taken every precaution we could,” Rosenbalm said. “Any time you take heavy trucks and they access the roads, there is the possibility that dirt in between the tire treads will roll out in the road.”
Staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.