A Deadly Legacy of Poisons from the Past

Gas waste from the 19th century is haunting communities all across America

Barrie Park is the kind of neighborhood you want to raise your kids in. Located just outside Chicago in Oak Park, Ill.--home to Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright--the schools are good and the neighbors friendly. The park itself, surrounded by about three dozen houses, is a gem, with two baseball diamonds and a sledding hill. But it has been more than two years since anybody has played here. Fenced off, padlocked, and festooned with warning signs, the lush green landscape hides a dark secret: a toxic stew of coal tars left behind by a manufactured-gas plant that was closed more than 70 years ago. It will cost the local power company $50 million to clean it up. And if all goes well, residents will never get sick from the poisons in their midst.

Before the discovery of large deposits of natural gas in the 1950s, gas was created by burning coal, coke, or oil. The first manufactured-gas plant (MGP) in the U.S. was built in Baltimore in 1816 to provide street and residential lighting. By the time of the Civil War, there were thousands of such plants located in towns and on factory sites because the gas couldn't be piped over long distances. But 50 years ago, the availability of cheaper, cleaner natural gas put most MGPs out of business. Many, like the one in Barrie Park, were simply bulldozed and built over, with tanks of tar and other contaminants left in place.

CLEANUP BILL. Today, poisons that have been hidden under the surface for decades are triggering costly and sometimes complicated cleanups at hundreds of sites scattered from coast to coast. People too young to remember the plants themselves are saddled with a legacy of pollution that includes volatile organic compounds (VOCs), polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), sulfur, and metals bequeathed by a technology that was cutting-edge in their grandparents' time.

The tars and toxins generated by manufactured gas are the 19th century equivalent of nuclear waste. And while not radioactive, chemicals such as benzene and many of the 500 to 3,000 compounds typically found in coal tars are known carcinogens. "These tars have lives that are measured in geologic time. They never go away," says geological engineer and MGP industry expert Allen W. Hatheway. The nationwide cleanup bill is estimated in the billions of dollars--the brunt of it born by utilities such as AGL Resources Inc., which faces a $186 million cleanup bill for a dozen sites in Florida and Georgia. And since there was nothing accidental in the creation of these wastes, insurers often refuse to cover the costs.

On the bright side, tars that are buried underground generally don't move much. In fact, some utilities argue that they are not much different from the tars on roads and roofs. But underground, they can leach into nearby rivers and lakes. Buried mounds of iron filings and wood chips that were used to filter sulfur, cyanide, and other contaminants from the gas present another threat. These so-called "purifier" wastes can turn water into sulfuric acid--and can even release cyanide gas.

The dangers presented by MGP wastes, in at least one regard, are more frightening than nuclear stockpiles: Spent fuel from the nation's 103 working reactors is carefully monitored. But with MGP, not even the utilities that now own most of the larger toxic sites--the result of buying up small local power providers--know where all of the poisons lie. Estimates for the number of utility sites range from 3,500 to 5,000. Add the smaller installations at factories, military posts, and rail yards, and the total climbs to 30,000 or more. Environmental Protection Agency programs analyst James Cummings, a specialist in MGP remediation, believes 80% of the utility sites have been identified. But only 20% of the others have been found. At this point, he says, "they've hardly begun to look."

ELABORATE. Barrie Park presents a microcosm of the woes of MGP remediation. Here, Commonwealth Edison Co. and NICOR Inc.--which at one point were a single company--are gearing up for one of the most elaborate cleanups to date. It will begin with the creation of a 10-foot-high fence that will wall the site off from the densely populated neighborhood. Then, to prevent chemicals from blowing through the town, a giant portable "sprung structure"--a kind of tent with its own air-filtration system--will be spread over each section of the park as it is dug up. A 50-foot crane will transfer carefully wrapped dirt into railroad cars waiting on a specially built spur line to haul it away.

The bulk of the work will be done in winter, says Mary O'Toole, director of environmental services for ComEd, because cold air helps contain the smells of volatile chemicals such as naphthalene. All told, the cleanup will take about 18 months, during which time ComEd has offered to relocate families. About half the neighborhood has expressed interest.

So far, Barrie Park residents have been lucky. Soil samples from 12 inches to 25 feet deep have revealed a witch's brew of coal tar, but air monitoring has turned up no signs that the toxins have come to the surface. So why dig it up at all? "It's a business issue for us," says Barrie Park district commissioner David Gullo. As the owner of a toxic property, the agency would always have the threat of lawsuits hanging over it. And any construction work, from a home addition to an emergency sewer excavation, would run the risk of striking a vein of noxious goo. In the background is the specter of Love Canal, the upstate New York town where urban sprawl on a former chemical dump cracked the landfill's cap. The lethal brew that leaked out triggered a public health crisis and led to the creation of the EPA's Superfund laws.

In other words, inaction can be a dangerous choice. To date, 14 MGPs across the country have landed on the EPA's National Priorities List. But that number understates the seriousness of the problem, says Hatheway. Under a law known as the Resources Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA), the only compound in MGP waste that automatically triggers a hazardous-waste cleanup is benzene. The Superfund assessment takes a more comprehensive approach. But even the Superfund framework recognizes only a handful of the chemicals in coal tars as priority pollutants.

This is a big problem, say many environmentalists and toxicologists. According to Hatheway--a retired professor of geological engineering at the University of Missouri who consults on MGP remediation--even chemicals in MGP wastes that are harmless by themselves can create deadly new threats in combination. New York nature lovers should take note. For years, kayakers and canoeists along the Hudson River near the old industrial town of Newburgh, 60 miles north of New York City, wondered about the oily stuff that occasionally coated their oars. In 1994, construction workers at a riverfront sewage treatment plant found tar during an excavation. It was traced to MGP waste from a plant owned by CH Energy Group Inc. As it turned out, the tar had been leaching downhill into the river for decades.

The town of Newburgh sued and won a $20 million judgment against the utility in 1998 but settled out of court in order to speed the cleanup. Three years later, the tar continues to flow while the debate goes on about how best to stop it. CH Energy proposes a $5.5 million remediation, replacing the top two feet of riverbottom and capping it with a geotextile mat. But Newburgh officials and New York's Dept of Environmental Conservation worry that deeper contamination could seep around the cap. Like the residents of Barrie Park, they want a more thorough, and expensive, cleanup.

Trouble is, remediation itself can bring long-buried poisons to the surface--sometimes with tragic effects. In 1987, at the beginning of a two-year dispute with the Illinois EPA over the need for further work at a site in Taylorville, Central Illinois Power Supply Co. (now AmerenCIPS) covered a 10-foot-deep hole with sheets of plywood and styrofoam. Storms and flooding ripped the cap apart. Then, in 1989, babies began getting sick. Within three years, four children in a town of 12,000 had been diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancer that usually strikes just nine in a million. Could airborne toxins from the MGP site have played a role? A jury thought so, awarding the families of the children $3.2 million in 1998. The case is now in its second round of appeals before the Illinois Supreme Court.

Some toxicologists such as Larry Goldstein, who researches MGP wastes at EPRI, a Palo Alto (Calif.) based energy research group, have begun to study tar itself--not just the individual components--as a kind of "supercompound." Like cigarette smoke, whose pernicious effects have been well documented, it's a complex substance. "Tar is one of the most potent combinations of carcinogens known, and it just sat there next to a playground," says Dr. Shira Kramer, an epidemiologist and expert on neuroblastoma risk factors who testified for the plaintiffs. Stand where this site is, she says, "and you're within spitting distance of the swings." Using the state's cancer registry and a series of statistical tests to quantify the incidence rate, Kramer determined that Taylorville had experienced a "16-fold excess risk of childhood neuroblastoma." The odds of this being a random event, she says, are 1 in 50,000.

OTHER CULPRITS? In its brief to the court, AmerenCIPS notes that the cause of neuroblastoma is unknown. The utility also points out that air monitoring during remediation was at levels acceptable to the Illinois EPA. The company contends that other carcinogens, bearing no relation to the MGP, were the likely culprits. Among the suspects it named: "sex hormones" ingested by three of the four mothers prior to pregnancy, hair dyes, and exposure to chlordane--a known carcinogen--in a nearby lake.

Toxic tars are only one facet of the MGP mess. Wood chips and iron filings that were used to remove sulfur and cyanide from manufactured gas were dumped--often illegally--in wetlands as "fill." The sulfur-soaked chips can turn water acidic. And, given the right combination of moisture and light, stable forms of cyanide can be released as gas. In 1992, workers at a factory near a Wisconsin Electric Power Co. (WEPCO) power-line easement in West Allis noticed an oily sheen on a small creek and a rancid odor in the air. The state Natural Resources Dept. traced the source to a pool of bright blue standing water so corrosive it had turned an eight-inch chunk of concrete into jelly. The water also tested for 140 parts per million of cyanide--well above EPA standards of acceptability for human safety. In addition, contamination was found on city-owned property a few miles up the easement.

A small pile of oily blue purifier waste near the water turned out to be the tip of a 26,000-ton disaster that cost $2.5 million to clean up. Yet WEPCO denied ownership of the chips and refused to help pay for it. So the City of West Allis and factory owner Giddings & Lewis Inc. sued. In December, 2000, a jury found WEPCO guilty, assessing $4.5 million to cover cleanup costs and diminished property values--and $100 million more in punitive damages. The case is in appeal.

As a rule, cleanup costs range from $3 million to $5 million per site. But they can run much higher. An estimated $24 million will be required to remediate a Consolidated Edison Inc. site in Tarrytown, N.Y. And Syracuse-based Niagra Mohawk Power is at least partly responsible for a staggering 55 sites, including one in Utica, N.Y., that may cost up to $86 million to clean.

Utilities industry analysts say there's no reason for investors to bolt from the sector--at least not yet. "The $100 million WEPCO judgment is a lot, but this is not make or break--unless they have 12 sites just like it," says UBS Warburg analyst Barry M. Abramson. In any case, several public-utility commissions have approved rate hikes that shift the burden onto consumers. But some question whether that erodes the utilities' competitiveness in an increasingly deregulated electricity market.

Meanwhile, insurance companies are fighting MGP claims, citing 19th century laws against dumping. "People knew that the waste products of manufactured gas were a problem," says Mitchell L. Lathrop, an attorney with Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps. Recently, he represented an insurance company that successfully fought off Consolidated Edison's claim on the Tarrytown site. The utility has appealed.

Perhaps MGP operators failed to grasp the magnitude of their mistakes. Or maybe they just knew they wouldn't get caught. Either way, they left behind a mess for future generations. At Barrie Park, a playground once filled with laughing children has become a symbol of technology's dark side. And the mood is bittersweet as longtime residents who lobbied hard for a thorough cleanup prepare to leave their homes for the next year and a half. Their focus is on the future. "When this is all over," says resident Robert Baren, "this is going to be a great neighborhood." For hundreds of other towns, the lengthy struggle for remediation is just beginning.

By Janet Ginsburg in Chicago

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