Sen. Chance criticizes EPD, state response to 2006 chemical release

Tue, 11/20/2007 - 5:22pm
By: Ben Nelms

It was a show of support by the state Senate Government Oversight Committee Nov. 16 for residents of Fayette and Fulton counties affected last year by chemical emissions from the Phillip Services Corp. (PSC) waste treatment plant on Ga. Highway 92.

In its first meeting, the committee heard limited testimony to familiarize senators with the circumstances of the chemical release. Their responses were stacked in favor of affected residents while their concerns were highly questioning of Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD).

Chaired by Sen. Ronnie Chance (R-Tyrone), the committee heard initial testimony from Rep. Virgil Fludd (D-Tyrone), Christian City CEO Bob Crutchfield, EPD Assistant Director Jim Ussery, South Fulton and Fayette Community Task Force Chair Connie Biemiller and Fayette County Dept. of Fire and Emergency Services Capt. Pete Nelms.

Neither PSC officials nor Georgia Division of Public Health representatives attended the meeting.

“We’re very, very concerned about the oversight of EPD and what we do to ensure that this does not happen again,” said Chance. “It could have been a lot worse. And it still may be down the road. We don’t know the after-effects. So this is something we’re going to have to stay on top of and really work on to make sure this oversight is occurring. There is the potential for legislation to be forthcoming to address these issues, based upon the recommendations of this committee.”

Chance put the PSC incident on the committee’s agenda due to the widespread health effects experienced in the Fayette and Fulton communities.

The May 29, 2006 incident released emissions from MOCAP “wash water” into the environment surrounding the plant. In its wake, hundreds of residents of south Fulton and north and central Fayette reported being sickened with one or more of the symptoms characteristic of acute or chronic exposure to two of its constituents, the organophosphate pesticide ethoprop and the chemical odorant propyl mercaptan.

In his testimony, Ussery gave an explanation of EPD’s response to the incident and outlined the regulatory process used in monitoring the PSC facility. Of those who offered testimony, it was Ussery who was met with the majority of questions and concerns by senators.

“Let me say that I’m not satisfied with the way this was handled. I’m not directing this toward you, Mr. Ussery, I’m directing this toward EPD,” said Sen. Joseph Carter (R-Tifton) in response to Ussery’s comments on the agency’s inspection of the PSC facility, its handling of the “odor incident” and its communications with other relevant agencies.

“I think this shows that EPD didn’t care about what was going on before it happened and, frankly, didn’t give it much care after it happened,” Carter said. “I don’t accept your answer that you don’t need to know what’s going on to with the citizens to determine the environmental impact. I think that is your job, and if it’s not job to gather the data it is your job to go to the people who are supposed to be getting it.”

Fludd began his testimony with an overview of the circumstances surrounding the chemical release. He said government had failed the people, adding that he planned to introduce legislation to address the concerns in the 2008 session. The legislation would seek to change solid waste management definitions, amend EPD’s responsibilities and its authority regarding solid waste and seek to introduce criminal penalties relative to hazardous waste management.

It was noted publicly by Chance and other senators near the close of the hearing that EPD officials left the meeting after their testimony rather than staying to hear remarks from citizens and public safety staff familiar with the incident.

Speaking to committee members, Biemiller noted the community’s repeated requests to EPD to come to the aid of sickened residents. Those requests, coupled with others to state and federal health officials, garnered little response. Months later, a state/federal Health Consultation noted only short-term illnesses associated with the exposure.

That report flies in the face of reality, said Biemiller, since some residents are still subject to the effects of illnesses suffered in late spring 2006. It is a national trend that the provisions of state and federal laws do not protect citizens, she said.

“Our community came together through numerous town hall meetings where we pleaded with the EPD to protect us but there were no laws in place to truly protect us. The EPD does not have the enforcement power to stop a community from being poisoned in the state of Georgia. They only have the power to stop the company’s operation until the company can get a lawyer and in this case it was 24 hours followed by a fine and the EPD asking the company in writing not to do it again,” Biemiller told senators.

“It did not matter that residents remained ill and the odor was still in the air, it did not matter that every city in the immediate area along with both the Fulton and Fayette County commissions passed resolutions to shut this plant down. Nothing mattered. Our dogs and cats were dying but not one was ever tested by the Health Division. Workers from the plant began coming forward to tell of their illnesses as well as tell stories of the use of illegal immigrants to work at this plant so that toxic materials could be brought in, because an illegal immigrant would never make a claim against the company. And none of this mattered.”

Open records requests by The Citizen in 2006 revealed that EPD had not secured permit-required submissions of any of the chemicals treated at the plant since it was sold by Fulton County in 1990.

Another open records request showed that while PSC had complied with a monthly reporting to Fulton County on the same information, Fulton’s records, submitted by PSC, accounted for only three shipments of the MOCAP wash water instead of the 38 shipments that PSC reported to EPD.

“My biggest concern remains the fact that the reports required by EPD to be filed with EPD were not filed in a timely fashion. (The reports) were not filed,” Chance said. “They were not mailed. They could go there and look at them there, after the fact. My real concern is where else is this happening. What other plants around the state are bringing in or shipping or mixing chemicals and creating hazardous materials? What are they doing, who is watching them? Who is minding the store? Someone was asleep at the switch here (with PSC).”

The Government Oversight Committee will discuss the PSC issue again in January. Future hearings on the illnesses will include testimony from affected residents, citizens’ task force researchers, Georgia Division of Public Health and others, Chance said.

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Git Real's picture
Submitted by Git Real on Thu, 11/22/2007 - 1:00pm.

When this was all going down. Puzzled

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