Alton Park vigil

Alton Park vigil

February 11th, 2011 by Carey O'Neil in Green

Staff Photo by Allison Carter/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Feb 10, 2011 - Thursday at Alton Park Church of Christ Gloria Griffith recounts stories of growing up in Alton Park when Velsicol Chemical Company had a working plant in the area. She said her parents would call her inside when they saw smoke being released from the plant so that she wouldn't breathe in the smoke.

Tennessee environmental officials will make a decision today that some say has implications not only for Chattanooga, but for anyone living south along the Tennessee River.

Velsicol Chemical Corp. will present a $1.9 million cleanup plan to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation today. The plan will call for the covering of toxic land in Alton Park, exposed to the company's chemicals for decades, with 12 to 18 inches of fresh soil -- a measure several residents say is not enough.

"When the Lord decides to take me away, I get 6 feet, and this stuff only gets 12 inches?" Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Brown asked about 60 people attending at a candlelight vigil Thursday night.

Brown likened the chemical waste Velsicol has left in the Alton Park area over the past 44 years to the recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"Just because it's on a small scale doesn't mean it doesn't need to be done right," he said.

Velsicol was able to dispose of chemicals as it did because of Tennessee's lax environmental laws, said Jami Brown, vice chairwoman of the Sierra Club. If TDEC decides to accept the company's proposal, chemicals could leech into stormwater, drain into sewers, flow into Chattanooga Creek and eventually reach the Tennessee River, she said.

"We as a community need to stand up and say this is not acceptable," she said. "The soil needs to be completely cleaned up, and they have the ability to do that."

Mamie Owens, a Chattanooga Organized for Action board member who helped organize the vigil, raised her children near the land. She and two of her sons have upper respiratory problems and her youngest has severe asthma -- problems she said possibly were caused by inhaling the plant's chemicals.

"I really think it needs to be shut down, and I think they just need to clean it up and do it now," she said. "This has been an ongoing problem, and they just don't seem to care."

Whether TDEC will accept Velsicol's proposal is a tough call, according to Chattanooga Organized for Action board member Ash-Lee Henderson.

"Sometimes they surprise you," she said. "I would be surprised if they didn't as much as if they did."

If the proposal is accepted, Henderson said those concerned should try to appeal to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. If it's rejected, she advised community members to continue to speak out.

"We want the community to have input on those next steps," she said. "We want it to be a just, clean transition so that this becomes a distant nightmare."

Contact staff writer Carey O'Neil at coneil@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6525.