He said he didn’t know the piles of dirt collecting within a few yards of his property could have contained PCBs and lead until it was hauled away by the Calhoun County Highway Department earlier this year. Gregory wasn’t alone. Several residents questioned Wednesday said they were unaware that dirt piles might have been laced with contaminants. Now some of them wonder if sediment from the site washed onto surrounding property. They wonder if it will affect their health.
“It wasn’t like we were out here choking on death with dirt,” Gregory said. “It’s just one of those things you think about from time to time.”
In the future, Gregory and his neighbors may not have to worry about potentially polluted dirt piles, which had been removed from ditches in west Anniston to address right-of-way maintenance concerns. This week the Environmental Protection Agency agreed to test and remove polluted soil from the remaining ditches, said Calhoun County Engineer Brian Rosenbalm.
That marks a major milestone for county officials who have been asking the EPA to test the ditch dirt for for some time. But it does little to relieve residents’ concerns about the dirt stored at the county barn over the past several years.
Some residents said they think some of the dirt washed into nearby streams and settled along the roadside. They worry about the effect the soil could have on the ecosystem and on human health.
A report completed in early March by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management states that the county department didn’t have proper environmental boundaries set up at the county barn. Nearly two months later, some residents are waiting to find out what action ADEM will take in response to its report’s findings.
Now the department is reviewing its findings to determine if the county should be penalized for the misstep, said ADEM spokesman Scott Hughes. Hughes said there is no timeline that dictates when ADEM should or will tell the highway department if it will be reprimanded or penalized for the lack of environmental barriers. But Hughes said it would be done in a “timely” manner.
“We certainly don’t want them to repeat this process and make the same mistakes that they may have made the first go around,” Hughes said.
Soil tests results state that trace amounts of lead and PCBs could be found in the dirt, but residents remain concerned.
The heaping piles of contaminated dirt bothered Turner Road resident Don George for some time. His farm borders the county barn and the soil was stored just a few feet from his property line, neighbors said.
Drainage ditches that feed into a nearby creek border either side of the county property. One of the ditches divides George’s property from the county barn site. In a letter sent to departmental officials in February, George said he was concerned about the effects potential contaminants in the dirt pile could have on the environment, and especially on his grandchildren who play on his farmland. State and county officials, however, say five dirt samples were tested and revealed that the dirt at the county barn was not hazardous.
According to test reports, at least one of the soil samples showed that trace amounts of lead and PCBs were in the soil, but the amount of chemicals measured in the soil was so small that the department does not consider it to be hazardous to human health.
But residents are unconvinced. Beth Diggs lives in a small home within walking distance of the barn. She said she wants to move away from Coldwater because of the health risks she associates with living in a community with a toxic reputation.
“I have health issues and I blame it on this,” Diggs said speaking about pollutants in the county.
Not far away from Diggs, Calhoun County resident Steve Cook lives with his family. Sitting outside his sturdy home is a for-sale sign, a bright red Ford 250 with a Talladega Superspeedway sticker on the windshield and a “curing Childhood Cancer” tag on his bumper.
Trained in storm water management at construction sites, Cook claims the county could have and should have done more to ensure sediment didn’t wash outside the county property. According to Cook, the county should have placed large stones on the drive that leads into and out of the site. Larger stones would have knocked loose the soil in the tire treads of the large dump trucks that carried the soil away to a lined landfill. Instead, the drive was bedded with large gravel and some of the soil was tracked onto Turner Road, residents said.
The county should have also put low-lying fences in place, Cook said. That type of fencing is designed to contain sediment at construction sites, he said. Such fencing did not line the perimeter of the property when Cook met with a reporter at the site Wednesday.
Cook said he had asked Oxford Mayor Leon Smith to visit the site, too. The mayor did not attend, and The Star’s attempt Wednesday to reach Smith was not successful.
Some environmental barriers — a small fence, hay and grass — were present at the site during the Wednesday visit. Cook said they were put into place after the dirt was removed.
“This wasn’t done right from day one,” he said, but Rosenbalm said some barrier grass was planted when the dirt was originally stored at the site.
Staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star