Contaminants surround the Decatur Youth Services offices at the Aquadome, many in concentrations above those deemed safe according to a 3M report filed last week, and state regulators required monitoring to determine if some of those contaminants could enter the building.
But air inside the building above an old landfill, where staff work full days and and youths visit, is not being monitored.
Even as 3M Co. prepares to install monitors outside the building to measure any toxins in vapor rising from the landfill, according to the 183-page 3M “Comprehensive Investigation Work Plan” filed last week with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), DYS Director Brandon Watkins said no equipment has been placed inside the building to measure possible airborne contaminants.
In addition to the DYS offices on Eighth Street Southwest, the Aquadome is home to a popular enclosed swimming pool.
“We all have concerns about what is going on,” Watkins said of himself and his staff. “We’re looking for another place to go. One of my biggest concerns is the youth coming in and out of this building when we do programs.
“We want to be out of here just as quick as possible.”
Mayor Tab Bowling on Thursday declined to say whether DYS and other Aquadome facilities would be relocated, citing litigation and settlement discussions involving 3M.
In the initial version of the 3M report, filed in March, the company did not propose testing to determine if contaminants could enter the building through vapor intrusion. ADEM responded to 3M that the exterior monitors should be used due to the types of chemicals found — several of which can be carried in the air as vapor — and the presence of an occupied building on the site. The concern is that, while contaminated vapor dispersed in the atmosphere does not become concentrated, the same vapor entering the air in an enclosed structure could create a toxic condition.
A 3M spokesman on Thursday said the company is not concerned about contaminant-laced vapor entering the building.
“Preliminary investigation data do not indicate there is an environmental risk posed by the former landfill to building occupants,” said Sean Lynch. “Should planned soil vapor sampling for volatile organic compounds indicate that additional monitoring, including inside the facility, is required, 3M will take appropriate next steps with ADEM supervision.”
Watkins said he and his staff, in the meantime, are worried about the air they breathe.
Vapor intrusion is a process by which contaminants vaporized in groundwater migrate through the soil and enter buildings through pathways such as cracks in the foundation or openings for utilities, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, potentially rising to toxic concentrations within enclosed structures or, if volatile chemicals like methane are involved, creating a risk of explosion.
The Aquadome property is in Councilman Billy Jackson’s District 1, and he also is the council liaison to Decatur Youth Services.
Jackson said he had not been notified that testing was planned to evaluate whether contaminated vapor is rising from the landfill but he feels that, at a minimum, that plan should be supplemented by testing air quality in the interior of the Aquadome building to protect staff and children.
The Aquadome Recreation Center and the former Brookhaven Middle School are located above a 40-acre municipal landfill that operated from the 1940s until 1964. It was the repository for both municipal and industrial waste, including from 3M after 3M-Decatur operations began in 1961, according to 3M's report last week.
3M settled claims asserted by Decatur City Schools by buying the 15-acre Brookhaven Middle property for $1.25 million and, according to a recent filing with ADEM, the company plans to demolish the school building. Most of the property around the Brookhaven school is now fenced with 3M “no trespassing” signs, but on Thursday numerous gates were either broken or standing open. The property has a football field with goal posts and a baseball field, and area residents said it's a popular spot for pickup soccer games.
The city remains the owner of the other 25 acres, which in addition to the DYS offices and Aquadome pool has several softball fields with backstops, and playground equipment that is frequently used by neighborhood children. The city property is not fenced in.
Decatur, 3M and other industries are defendants in cases involving PFOA and PFOS, two toxic chemicals in the PFAS family previously used by 3M and disposed of in and near Decatur. The lawsuits are currently stalled so the parties can seek a mediated settlement, and both lawyers and city officials have said they are barred by the court from discussing settlement discussions.
The perimeter of the landfill is heavily populated by homes on Beard Street to the south, Second Avenue to the east, Eighth Street to the north and Fifth Avenue to the west. There are about 3,800 residential properties within a mile of the landfill, based on Decatur Utilities connections, according to the 3M report.
One of the Beard Street properties is owned by 77-year-old Malcolm Posey, who has lived there since 1965, a year after the landfill closed. The Beard Street properties are closest to the old landfill, with only a narrow alley separating them from Brookhaven and the south side of the landfill.
“If there were enough chemicals for them to stop having school at Brookhaven, what’s going to keep those chemicals from coming right into our yards and houses? The alley isn’t going to stop them from seeping into the yards,” Posey said. “How much has seeped through the ground into our property?”
Lynch said no testing for contaminants is planned for the residential properties surrounding the landfill, although some off-site testing will take place on city property and public rights of way.
“Preliminary investigation data do not suggest that there is an environmental risk to area residents posed by the former landfill property,” Lynch said. “3M will continue to take appropriate action with ADEM’s supervision, and the results of this additional sampling will be publicly available.”
Posey said neither the city nor 3M have contacted him about the risks associated with the landfill contaminants. Lynch said residents with questions about off-site testing can contact 3M at email@example.com.
Jackson, like Posey, said he’s afraid toxins from the old landfill have leached into the adjacent properties of his constituents.
“That to me is of considerable concern,” he said. “Several of the neighbors have expressed concern. They see 3M working with the schools on Brookhaven and the city on Aquadome, but what’s happening to make sure they’re safe? They’re asking, ‘What happens to us? What happens about the fact our kids were raised in this house?’”
Posey said most of the landfill was uncovered and no longer being used when he moved in, “but we had no way of knowing what had been dumped in it. We were just told it was the old city dump. They didn’t tell us who had dumped there.”
Indeed, 3M in its report filed last week noted that it is handicapped by the limited information it has about the city’s use and closure of the landfill.
“No information is available regarding the types of industrial waste disposed at the site,” according to the report, and there is a “lack of information regarding landfill operations, waste content or waste placement.”
Current landfill regulations, according to the EPA, require that they be covered by a nonpermeable or slightly permeable synthetic material, part of an engineered cover system, to reduce the risk of water- or airborne toxins reaching the surface or leaving the site in groundwater or surface water.
“No engineered cover system was installed when the landfill was closed in 1964,” according to the 3M report. “The city of Decatur has no records regarding the procedures conducted during closure of the landfill.”
In a report filed with ADEM in March, 3M said it was trying to avoid "intrusive activities" during its investigation, except on the perimeter of the old landfill, in part because of "the potential for long-term risk associated with inadvertent chemical releases; potential health and safety hazards to personnel, Aquadome workers or park visitors, and nearby residents if landfill gas pockets are penetrated or mobilized."
The report filed by 3M with ADEM last week includes preliminary findings on contaminants that 3M contractor GHD found on the 40-acre site. The plan is required by a consent order agreed to by 3M and ADEM last year and is designed to guide future efforts to remediate the risks posed by the former landfill. The consent order focuses on the evaluation by 3M of PFAS disposed at numerous dumps in Morgan and Lawrence counties. It is not clear from the order whether 3M disposed of other chemicals, or whether it has an obligation to remediate contaminants other than PFAS.
Groundwater contamination is of particular concern, both because it can flow to offsite locations and because it can result in toxic vapor that enters enclosed and occupied structures. Toxins discovered in groundwater on the site that exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maximum contaminant levels included:
• Trichloroethene, a chemical that can be absorbed through the skin and inhaled and which according to the National Cancer Institute can cause kidney cancer and has also been linked to non-Hodgkin lymphoma and liver cancer.
• Vinyl chloride, a chemical that can enter the air from groundwater and which is associated with liver, brain and lung cancer, and lymphoma and leukemia.
• Dichoroethelene, a chemical that can enter garden plants and which becomes airborne as vapor. It has been linked to liver, lung and heart damage in laboratory animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
• PFAS, a class of chemicals referred to as “forever chemicals” because they don’t biodegrade, remain in the body for a long time and tend to accumulate in organs. According to the CDC, studies have found that PFAS exposure is linked to kidney and liver cancer, disruption of the immune system, increased cholesterol and high blood pressure. While the EPA has established no maximum contaminant level for PFAS, groundwater samples on the Aquadome site had concentrations well above the EPA lifetime health advisory for drinking water.
Soil and surface water
Soil samples were taken and included by 3M in a preliminary report issued in March. PFAS was found in all soil samples taken throughout the 40-acre property, including on the sports fields, but at concentrations below EPA screening levels — levels viewed as creating a health risk. In the report issued last week, 3M said that due to preliminary test results, future soil samples will be tested for PFAS, volatile organic compounds (which the EPA says may be linked to liver and kidney damage and cancer, and which can enter structures if vaporized by groundwater), metals including arsenic, and pesticides.
Posey said he faults the city as much as 3M or other industries that may have dumped toxic chemicals in the dump.
“The city built the ballfields down there. There’s no telling how many kids have wallowed around in the dirt and the mud on those ballfields," he said. "I had no clue they were letting 3M dump there.”
Posey said lots of children and youth continue to play soccer and other games on the Brookhaven and Aquadome fields.
Watkins said he doesn’t know of any organized sports taking place on the ballfields, but he frequently sees kids playing on them.
According to last week’s report, 3M's contractor also found numerous contaminants that exceeded the EPA screening levels in surface water on the Aquadome property, most in the concrete-lined drainage ditch that bisects the property. These included the pesticides dieldrin and heptachlor epoxide, vinyl chloride, arsenic and iron. PFAS was also found in the surface water,
'It worries me'
Posey said his concern about living next to the landfill is in part because he feels there have been an abnormal number of deaths and cases of cancer and heart disease among his neighbors, many of whom moved to Beard Street in 1965 shortly after the subdivision was built.
“Were the chemicals the cause of that? I do not know, but it worries me and it worries my neighbors,” Posey said. “If you lived in an area as long as we have, if you saw as many pass away or get sick as we have, of course it's a worry.”
He said the city or 3M has an obligation to residents adjoining the old landfill.
“The city knew that 3M was dumping chemicals out there, but they went ahead and built the school, the Aquadome and all the ballfields that kids played ball on for years. The city knew it,” Posey said.
Posey said he would like to see the city and 3M meet what he believes is an ethical obligation to the many people who live on the perimeter of the landfill.
“I think they should pay us a normal, average price for our house and land,” he said. “If they did that, I would leave here in a heartbeat, and I think my neighbors would, too.”