SUNDAY EDITION | Kentucky hazardous waste fund faces uncertain f - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SUNDAY EDITION | Kentucky hazardous waste fund faces uncertain future

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – At a 27-acre bend in the Ohio River, companies operated fuel terminals and a refinery until the mid-1980s. The property in southwestern Louisville has sat mostly vacant since then, but pollution concerns have lingered.

Over the years, state and federal officials found lead and other potentially harmful chemicals in soil samples. A 2008 analysis showed the carcinogen benzene seeping into the river “in excess of safe drinking water levels,” according to state reports.

Louisville Environmental Services, which bought the property in 1993, no longer exists. So Kentucky has pooled money from various sources – mainly from fees on industry – to clean up the site and other abandoned ones across the state.

But the state's hazardous waste management fund faces projected shortfalls for the foreseeable future, and earlier this year the Kentucky Division of Waste Management warned lawmakers it was halting projects at contaminated sites that are abandoned or have no “responsible party.”

The move was meant to keep enough money on hand in the event of a costly emergency, said Tim Hubbard, the division's assistant director. None of the suspended work involved imminent threats to human health, he said.

The division has since determined it has enough money for “additional investigation and/or cleanup” at six sites, but that's only about one-third of the highest-priority projects. The old Louisville Environmental Services property is among those that will still receive funding, Hubbard wrote in an emailed response to WDRB News' questions.

The fund, which took in slightly less than $2.5 million in 2014, is a relatively small part of a division whose most recent budget exceeded $60 million. The office has numerous other duties, such as regulating underground storage tanks, cleaning houses tainted by methamphetamine and removing illegal dumps.

But the fund is the state's only way to deal with contamination on abandoned land in cases that don't require oversight by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Officials estimate there are more than 300 such sites across Kentucky.

INTERACTIVE MAP: LOUISVILLE-AREA SITES

Those sites, known as state-lead, include properties where an owner or private company isn't considered responsible for the pollutants due to bankruptcy or other financial straits. The EPA oversees the cleanup of particularly egregious “superfund” sites; the state monitors them after they have been removed from a federal priority list.

“Someone has to address those sites before it becomes a major problem,” Hubbard said in an interview. “It may not be a significant issue at this current time. But if it's allowed to … not be addressed over a period of time, it can become worse.”

Hubbard's division was more direct in a report sent to the General Assembly in July.

“The available funding on an annual basis will not be sufficient to meet the baseline needs for the program,” officials wrote in the report, which by law must be submitted every other year.

Without a boost in funding, officials warned it will become “increasingly difficult” to respond to emergencies and conduct cleanups: “Some of these sites, which the cabinet cannot currently respond to, may present appreciable risk to human health and over time mount up to a significant backlog of environmental liability.”

Rep. Jim Gooch Jr., a Providence Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee, said in a brief telephone interview that he had not read the report.

Rep. Fitz Steele, a Democrat from Hazard and chair of the House's budget review subcommittee for natural resources, did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Established in 1980, the state fund has spent nearly $70 million for work on more than 500 contaminated properties. Lawmakers last reauthorized the fund in 2008; it is set to expire in June 2016.

State officials blame exemptions from fees carved out for waste-related industries and a reduction in federal and other funds for the dire outlook. At the same time, they acknowledge, companies have become better at minimizing waste and recycling materials, meaning they owe less in fees to the fund.

Much of the fund was used during the 2014 fiscal year on one project: Louisville's Black Leaf facility, a former pesticide manufacturing plant that contaminated scores of homes in the city's Park Hill neighborhood. In all, 68 of the 78 properties cleaned up used monies from the fund -- $1.5 million last year, according to the state.

Based on recent spending on environmental emergencies and work at abandoned sites, state officials estimate they'll have roughly $1 million less than needed annually for the fund starting next year.

And that's a concern, said Roy Funkhouser, an environmental geologist and principal with Linebach Funkhouser Inc., whose company has done work using monies from the fund.

“It's a decision that we're all going to have to make as citizens of Kentucky is where do we want to allocate money? … At some point even some risks that are probably going to be identified as fairly significant, there won't be funding to address them,” Funkhouser said.

Three of the six sites Kentucky chose to continue cleaning up despite the funding problems are former dry cleaners, including the old Kim's Valley Station Laundry & Dry Cleaners in Louisville and the former Familee Dry Cleaners in Hodgenville.

In fact, Kentucky officials say about 12 percent of the state's registered dry cleaning businesses are being assessed or cleaned up with state aid. Kentucky is not among the states with a fund to help dry cleaners cover those costs, which average $500,000 per site, according to estimates.

One of the main risks is from perchloroethylene, a dry cleaning solvent that can stay in the ground for years.

“It has plumes that can be far longer and wider in reach than, say, a standard oil spill,” said Tim Joice, water policy director for the Kentucky Waterways Alliance. “So you're looking at greater exposure to the community and sometimes they don't even know it.”

Another chemical -- trichloroethylene, or TCE -- is at issue in Hodgenville, where unexpectedly high levels of the industrial solvent were discovered in groundwater, most recently in September 2013.

Tests showed a plume of TCE, has moved underground and may have reached the Nolin River, the state's report found.

Research is inconclusive on the chemical's link to cancer and birth defects, although studies increasingly “suggest that more birth defects may occur when mothers drink water containing trichloroethylene,” according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Because TCE was found about 400 yards from Hodgenville's drinking water intake, the state worked with local officials to collect water samples that showed no “constituents of concern,” Hubbard wrote in an email.

“There are only a handful of homes and businesses that are in the vicinity of the contamination,” Hubbard wrote. Still unclear, however, is whether TCE vapors could penetrate the soil and seep into those homes and businesses.

Hubbard said in the email that compact soils in the area could reduce that risk, but the state plans to use hazardous waste funds to conduct additional samples and do more work to determine the extent of the contamination, including whether vapor intrusion is a concern. A clean-up plan would then be put in place, he said.

In an interview, Hubbard said he is hopeful lawmakers will re-authorize the fund. And while additional money would help, he said, “We feel like we've become smarter over time in how we spend the money. We're looking at ways we can do things more efficiently.”

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