A South Chattanooga community's push to force additional environmental cleanup at the abandoned Velsicol Chemical Co. site has resulted in a new look by the state health department.
Bonnie Bashor, Tennessee environmental epidemiology director, said Tuesday that she will conduct a public health assessment for the neighborhoods near the Velsicol and old Charles A. Bell School areas and parts of the Chattanooga Creek area.
"I will address whether the Velsicol plan is adequate," Bashor told community members.
Community members wrote to state and federal officials earlier this year seeking a health assessment. Bashor said that letter halted a permitting process that would have allowed Velsicol to cover the site with dirt, fence it and monitor it as a closed industrial site.
The community wants the 36-acre site cleaned up enough to be used by the public.
Gary Hermann, Velsicol's senior environmental projects manager, has said the plan to put down 18 inches of soil would protect public health, and he has said the company hopes to sell the site to another industry.
State regulators have said Velsicol won't have to clean the site up to a residential standard because it is zoned industrial.
Mayor Ron Littlefield has indicated rezoning is unlikely.
The Velsicol plant operated for more than 40 years, manufacturing herbicides, pesticides and other chemicals including benzene and benzoyl. Those two chemicals have been classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a carcinogen and probable carcinogen, respectively.
Hermann did not return calls Wednesday, but in the past he said the company already has cleared 24 million pounds of wastes from the site.
Groundwater pumps, which have been on the property for years, continue to collect coal tar wastes. The waste is gathered a couple of times a week and put in drums for incineration, he said in a previous meeting with South Chattanooga residents.
Community organizers were pleased to learn Tuesday the permit is on hold, but Elenora Woods, a dentist who grew up in Alton Park, asked the health official how "yet another research study" is going to benefit the community.
"What we're seeing in Alton Park time and time again is research," Woods said. "It's only benefiting those who are getting the research opportunities and grants."
Bashor acknowledged that several health studies have been made in the community for differing purposes, including one she did in the 1980s.
"But the community has a different set of problems for chemicals now than it did 20 years ago," she said. "The Tennessee Department of Health worked on a similar [Velsicol site] project in Memphis, and we were successful in getting the community and the company and the regulators together to reach an agreement."
Jeremy Tallman-Gazaway asked if Bashor could help the community get some independent water monitoring done, since the company now monitors itself and supplies the readings to state regulators.
Bashor said she can ask state officials to test some sewer outfalls and monitoring wells.
She said she will review environmental data, look at how people might come into contact with chemicals there and make a recommendation on how to keep people safe.
She said the study will be funded by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She hopes to have a draft report in about six months, she said.