Dec 5, 2006 - The Citizen

Task force unhappy with PSC plant response from feds' EPA

Congressman David Scott in September asked U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to close the Philip Services Corp. (PSC) waste treatment plant near Fairburn until answers to hundreds of illnesses in Fayette and south Fulton counties could be found. EPA's answer: No.

Scott's request of EPA came after a plea from members of South Fulton/Fayette Community Task Force to close the plant when residents became ill after inhaling what they believed were chemical emissions from the facility. Scott's request remains relevant despite PSC's agreement Monday with Fulton County to cease discharging water into the county sewer system.

Responding to Scott's Sept. 25 letter to EPA Director Stephen Johnson, EPA Region 4 Administrator J.I. Palmer, Jr. said Nov. 9 that EPA had no basis for action. "The information available to EPA indicates that the PSC facility is moving forward appropriately with addressing decontamination, site operation, and other issues stemming from the odor incident. The actions being taken by EPD appear to be both appropriate and adequate for ensuring compliance at the PSC facility," Palmer said.

"Based on that available information, there is no basis upon which EPA could take action to stop operations at the facility at this time. We will continue to work closely with EPD and Alabama Dept. of Environmental Management (ADEM), as requested, in their efforts to resolve any remaining environmental issues stemming from the odor incident at the PSC facility," Palmer said. Much of Palmer's three-page letter to Congressman Scott was a rehashing of the series of events that began after large numbers of residents in a 40 square-mile area near the PSC plant in Fairburn began reporting illnesses believed to stem from the chemicals they were breathing.

EPA found no violations during its inspection of the PSC plant on Ga. Highway 92. Palmer recapped a report by Ga. Division of Public Health (DPH) stating that the inhaled chemicals may have contributed to residents' adverse health effects, adding that there are no known long-term health effects from the chemicals and that there is no evidence that PSC's ongoing operations pose a health threat to the community.

Scott became involved when approached by Fayette and Fulton residents concerned over what they called a less than satisfactory response to their illnesses by the state EPD. Scott and task force members met in September with representatives from EPD, EPA, Georgia Division of Public Health, federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Fulton County and others. Scott offered an opinion after hearing reports from various sectors.

"What's wrong with closing (the plant) until we have an explanation?" Scott asked, posing the question after referencing the number of affected families and taxpayers in the community. "The problem is that people around the plant got sick and it clearly represented a health hazard. The odor is still there. The illnesses are a hazard to the residential quality of life. We need to put a halt on the plant until the answers are found." Scott also expressed his regret that EPD opted to allow PSC to enter into a Consent Order agreement and reopen the plant in August after its permit was suspended. An Aug. 11 Consent Order was issued after PSC's solid waste handling permit was temporarily suspended in late July following an EPD site inspection.

"You should not have entered into a consent order with them," Scott told EPD Assistant Director Jim Ussery. "You all should have never allowed them to get off the hook. The public hasn't had their process. If you can't close the plant until you find the answers you'll have to go to the legislature to look at new legislation to tighten things up."

In a response letter to Palmer, South Fulton/Fayette Community Task Force expressed obvious concern over what they termed a lack of action by EPA over the hundreds of illnesses reported during the summer and fall after residents of Fayette and south Fulton counties breathed the now-familiar onion-like smell of chemical odorant propyl mercaptan and organophosphate pesticide MOCAP. The MOCAP water wash came from Bayer Cropscience in Axis, Ala., by way of AMVAC, also in Axis.

"We are very disappointed in the overall lack of actions taken by EPA to protect the health and well-being of citizens that have clearly been impacted by releases over the past several months," the task force letter said. "The EPA Mission Statement is clear when it says your primary function is to protect the human health and the environment. Based on the content of your Nov. 9, 2006, letter, we do not believe that EPA has come close to living up to the stated mission. We had fully expected that EPA, an agency with the Congressional direction to serve American citizens, would take immediate and swift action when some of those citizens were faced with health problems like ours. We believe there are a number of actions that EPA could take to identify what is being treated at the PSC facility, what processes are being used, and what safeguards are in place. In short, what happened and why."

The task force refuses to accept Palmer's assessment, preferring instead to take their case to elected officials throughout the eight-state Region 4 area if EPA continues on a non-responsive course.
"We are requesting ... that you reconsider the direction that EPA is taking on this issue and come to the assistance of the many citizens suffering from whatever was released at the PSC facility," the task force said. "More specifically, we are requesting that a decision to take positive actions needs to occur before Dec. 18, 2006. It is our intention, after that date, to initiate a report to every governor, every senator and every representative within the eight states within Region 4 of the EPA. Our report ... will detail the significant health problems that over 800 citizens have suffered, provide them with Congressman Scott's letter asking for you help, your response to that letter, our interpretation of your non-action, a recap of the other meetings involving EPA and actions not taken by your agency.

"It is our intent to inform every governor, senator and representative of the risk that their citizens face from the lack of willingness of EPA to take strong actions on the citizens behalf. Our conclusion will simply be that EPA failed here and there is every reason to expect similar non-action in every other state within your region." The recent DPH report along with those from EPD did not acknowledge that the onion-like odor of Propyl mercaptan began in late May but was not widely reported until early July. As early as Memorial Day, scores of area residents smelled the odor of onions, believing the odor to be something organic, such as wild onions growing nearby or a neighbor grilling onions during a cookout.

It was not until late June, when PSC rejected four loads of the MOCAP water wash that arrived at the Fairburn plant, that the same odor became thick in the air in an area of approximately 40 square miles around the plant. Later tests performed in Alabama on the rejected loads showed concentrations of propyl mercaptan and MOCAP hundreds of thousands of times in excess of exposure levels indicated on Material Safety Data Sheets for the two chemicals. By: Ben Nelms

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