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EPA cleaning up chemical dump

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LAMBSBURG — Carroll County officials declared an emergency Monday evening as officials dealt with unstable barrels of hydrochloric and nitric acid found at a former business in the Lambsburg community.

A crew of environmental cleanup workers in white haz-mat suits and breathing masks sealed off the property on Tuesday and began unloading barrels of acid and chemicals from a half-dozen parked trailers on the property.

Officials were notified Oct. 1 of a complaint received by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality about a now-closed business at Old Pipers Gap and Flower Gap roads.

The business used acid to remove valuable metals, such as gold, from dismantled computers, County Administrator Gary Larrowe said in a news release Tuesday, and “the complainant suggested carelessness in the operation and that some of the acid may have been disposed of on site.”

Pieces of computer circuit boards remain in the parking lot on the site.

Carroll Emergency Services Director Joe Roma visited the site and found more than 80 barrels of acid on the trailers. Once he found unstable plastic barrels of suspected acid, he contacted the Virginia Department of Emergency services, DEQ, Virginia State Police, Carroll Sheriff’s Department, Hillsville and Cana fire departments, Carroll EMS and the commonwealth’s attorney.

Officials found the owner of the property and operator of the business. After obtaining permission, further searching located nearly 300 chemical- and gas-filled containers, Larrowe said.

Environmental Protection Agency On-Scene Coordinator Mike Towle confirmed Tuesday that the acids were hydrochloric and nitric, which the business mixed in the process of removing the metals.

He said the barrels of used acid also could contain metals.

The liquids are improperly stored in blue plastic barrels — some of which are leaking — and rusty metal drums capped only with plastic bags.

Towle has been on the scene since Monday, along with state and local officials and EPA contractors Kemron Environmental Services of Atlanta, Ga.

Assessing the Scene

The site includes a block building and a small wooden building, as well as six box trailers, according to information that EPA officials have posted on the federal agency's Web site, detailing the assessment and cleanup efforts.

"Throughout the night of October 1, 2009, local authorities opened and assessed the contents of the trailers," the posting said. "The trailers exhibited evidence of leakage based upon odors and staining upon and alongside the trailers."

The trailers had not been secured at the time.

"The contents of the trailers include approximately 300 drums of unknown materials, dozens of buckets, bags of sodium metabisulfite, jugs of hydrochloric acid, at least one vat, crucibles, computer components and other miscellaneous materials," the EPA report said.

Some of the leaky drums contained an unknown reddish oily material. Strong acids leaked from others.

Most of the drums didn't have lids, and these were covered with plastic and sealed only with duct tape.

Other drums that were sealed bulged under pressure, and these drums emitted chlorine gas when opened, the EPA report said. This is "consistent with a mixture of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid," used for etching gold.

"Available information indicated that acid chemicals were being dumped and buried upon the property and that drums of acid were now located in and leaking from trailers located on the property," said a special bulletin posted on the EPA Web site.

The barrels used to be stored in the block building, but had been removed to the trailers because the business owner was being evicted, according to information from the EPA.

Authorities say that the wooden building contained different kinds of debris from disassembling the computers, including pieces of plastic and rubber. This location also has indications of possible dumping, including stains and pooled liquid.

Disturbed ground has been reported by residents as a location of buried containers, according to the EPA information.

Under the estimated costs section, the EPA will spend up to $250,000 to the clean up the Old Pipers Gap Road site.

At the suggestion of the EPA and environmental officials, Larrowe declared Carroll a local emergency on Monday. “It is expected that the Carroll County Board of Supervisors will ratify the action of the county administrator” at its meeting Oct. 13, the news release said.

The EPA started testing water and soil samples at the site on Tuesday, and if necessary, will move outward in rings to make sure that the water source of the community is safe. Towle said a well on the site would be tested first for contamination.

At the same time, the EPA will start to stabilize chemicals with assistance from Kemron.

The investigation found that the site had apparently been operating for several years without being reported, the news release said.

“Once someone reported the operation to the appropriate officials, quick actions have resulted. It is important to let the proper officials know of issues like this to avoid environmental dangers, human safety issues and to assist in cleaning up Carroll County,” Larrowe said.

"It is expected that cleanup will take several days, according to results of the chemical identity tests and the testing of local streams, wells and soils,” Larrowe said.

Names of the property owner and operator were not released while the cleanup operation is proceeding.

Dirty Work

As Kemron workers went about their job in the muddy parking lot and back yard area, an acrid smell hung in the air, burning the sinuses.

Vapors from the acids irritate the respiratory system, and touching the chemicals will burn bare skin and eat away clothing, said Mike Towle of the EPA. The two acids mixed together create chlorine gas, also a respiratory irritant.

That's why the contractors suited up head-to-toe in protective gear while sorting through the trailers' contents.

Workers used a forklift to unload pallets full of barrels, drums, plastic containers, cardboard boxes, buckets, computer parts, random junk and at least one large plastic bag of unidentified white chemical powder.

The barrels were on the trailers when the EPA arrived, Towle said. In his opinion, the building on the property — the one about to become a church — “doesn't have an issue” with contamination.

“The problems occurred when they started moving the materials from the back of the property to the trailers,” presumedly to remove them from the site. “We wouldn't be in this position if these materials hadn't been put in the trailers so haphazardly.”

Sitting still, the barrels were relatively harmless, but moving or jostling them releases vapors or chlorine gas.

Towle said the potential health hazards were significant, had the acid drums spilled and contaminated the water or if someone had gotten into the trailers — which were unlocked — and gotten burned or inhaled vapors.

Containment and Clean-Up

Towle said the clean-up will take about a week. By that time, he should also know if acids or metals are in the water.

The EPA has two teams of contractors working on containing the chemicals.

Kemron is removing drums and seeing how much acid is inside, while another team is taking samples of soil and water from the site.

“Some of the barrels are pressurized — you can see them actually bulging — and we'll need to relieve that pressure. Others are leaking,” Towle said. “And, we're trying to determine if any of the material has been dumped on the ground, where it could seep into wells.”

The workers took samples from a well on the site Tuesday. “We're starting with the immediate area. If it's okay, then the other wells in the area are likely okay. If we find [evidence of contamination] in this well, we'll start moving outward and testing others."

As for the barrels, Kemron will work to neutralize the acids by adding lime and other chemicals to raise the PH and render them non-acidic.

However, Towle said the drums can't be shipped in their present condition. “We'll try to 'bulk' them. We'll bring in a tanker truck and pump the materials into it. We're trying now to track down a trailer to haul away the empty barrels.”

If acid has gotten into the water, the first step is to find the contaminated soil causing the run-off and remove it.

“If there's acid in the water, it's easy to neutralize,” Towle said. “If there are metals in the water, that's more difficult to deal with.”

Cleaning that up would involve changing the PH balance of the water so the metals would “drop out.”

Ignored for Too Long

Larrowe did not know if charges would be filed in this case. That's a decision up to state or federal officials.

No one shared concerns about the business in question or it's activities to Carroll officials previously, but Larrowe said that someone had made an issue about barrels sitting around the property in the past.

After being approached by county officials, the business owner moved the barrels, which were empty, behind the building.

It's surprising that no one came forward with concerns about hazardous materials before, the county administrator said.

"No one reported this thing," Larrowe said. "I cannot believe that no one paid any attention to this thing."

There's a real concern over possible contamination of groundwater, wells and the air.

"People need to pay attention to what's going on in their community," he said.