Company brokering chemicals years after Memphis plant closure

The Velsicol Chemical Corp. plant in Memphis is seen through a fence in 2012. Velsicol is attempting to renew a state-sanctioned permit. (AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal, Kyle Kurlick)
The Velsicol Chemical Corp. plant in Memphis is seen through a fence in 2012. Velsicol is attempting to renew a state-sanctioned permit. (AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal, Kyle Kurlick)

When 40 people gathered to hear about the future of a defunct chemical plant in North Memphis, many were surprised to learn the company has still been storing and shipping toxic materials for years.

Environmental advocates and residents met Velsicol Vice President George Harvell in March at the Hollywood Community Center. Harvell organized this pre-application meeting as part of a mandatory step for his company to renew a state-sanctioned permit with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

For generations of Black families in the communities of Hollywood and Douglass Park, Velsicol's toxic legacy is a familiar burden. Harvell recounted the company's history during his presentation, citing familiar information about how Velsicol manufactured several pesticides that were later found to have harmful effects on both human health and the environment.

However, his presentation took an unexpected turn when he began discussing the storage of existing Velsicol products. People interjected with questions about how that was possible when the company stopped its chemical production in 2012.

Through Velsicol's hazardous waste management permit, however, it is authorized to store and distribute chemicals including Hexachlorocyclopentadiene, also commonly referred to as hex. Used in flame retardants and pesticides, hex is a manufactured chemical that does not occur naturally.

Harvell gave conflicting remarks on the source and acquisition of hex prior to storage at the Memphis facility. At the start of his presentation, Harvell said, "Velsicol is not manufacturing any products anywhere in the world, and we just broker chemicals."

Moments later, he detailed "the four main products that Velsicol manufactures." These four chemical products, including hex, are prominently advertised on Velsicol's website.

As people asked for clarification about the product development in the meeting, Harvell backtracked, explaining, "I misspoke, but we're not manufacturing. We're storing them in the warehouses."

Harvell initially denied the company is extracting chemicals from contaminated water and soil on its site and reselling them as these products. However, his responses became inconsistent when a resident directly asked, "Where are you getting them from?"

Storing and distributing legacy pollutants

Hex is a crucial component in now-banned pesticides such as chlordane, aldrin, dieldrin and endrin — all of which are legacy chemicals that still contaminate soil and water on and around Velsicol's Memphis facility to this day, although Velsicol does not manufacture it now.

Laboratory testing has identified chemical residue since the 1970s, when industrial hygienists reported excessive levels of hex to the EPA based on air sampling. In 1982, a memo from the city of Memphis documented that soil samples taken from around the site exhibited the chemical's oily-greasy nature and indicated the potential for hex preservation in the soil.

In the 1990s, Velsicol was the sole producer of chlordane in the United States, despite its banned status for use in the county. The Memphis plant continued to manufacture chlordane for international export. When it stopped production later that decade, the company then reported a subterranean plume of chemicals roughly the size of the Liberty Bowl stadium.

(READ MORE: Bill to allow development on Tennessee wetlands advances in House)

It contained 80,000 pounds of carbon tetrachloride.

According to the National Library of Medicine, hex can be produced as a byproduct of creating carbon tetrachloride. Recent reports filed with TDEC showed low levels of the hex compound remain on site, while around 7,000 pounds of carbon tetrachloride persisted, as noted in the latest publicly available corrective action effectiveness report. These reports are required annually by TDEC, and David Winchell, a consultant for Velsicol and senior engineer with the firm WSP, signed the 2022 report.

During the March meeting, Winchell and Harvell took questions about if those legacy chemicals tie into the company's modern products, but they did not give straightforward answers.

When a woman in the meeting asked, "Are those chemicals coming from out of the ground, because you're cleaning up?" Winchell replied, "No, those are products. I'll let George speak to that."

Harvell continued, "Those four products, with the exception of hex, I don't think we're finding them on the plant side."

The woman posed her question again, "Are they coming out of the ground?"

Harvell empathically responded with "no."

Despite repeated inquiries from the Lookout to both TDEC and Velsicol regarding the specifics of extraction activities over the last decade and the remaining cleanup tasks, simple answers have not been provided.

The cost of cleanup

Velsicol's defunct 62-acre site in Memphis has led many residents to believe it's a federal Superfund site because of perceived inactivity and deteriorating infrastructure, though the EPA hasn't listed it as such.

(READ MORE: Report: Record levels of 'forever chemicals' in Tennessee sewage sludge used as crop fertilizer)

The facility is operating under a Resource Conservation and Recovery Act permit, which allows Velsicol to legally store, treat and dispose of hazardous waste. Winchell and Harvell told people in the March meeting they want to continue remediation of legacy pollutants, though it is unclear what is left to clean up.

In both federal programs, a distinction between Resource Conservation and Recovery and Superfund sites is that Superfund sites prioritize remediation and redevelopment, whereas Resource Conservation and Recovery is primarily focused on the management of hazardous waste.

However, land reuse has successfully happened under Resource Conservation and Recovery permits.

The EPA typically designates a Superfund site when a company lacks the financial means to conduct cleanup or has abandoned its site.

The Memphis facility has faced several financial challenges over the decades. In 1986, people who lived near its rural dump site, then referred to by Velsicol as a farm, collectively filed a class-action lawsuit.

"Velsicol has taken the position that without the farm, the Memphis plant would close," a document in the court case says. "Thus, the court believes that it would be appropriate to deprive Velsicol of a reasonable part of the profit it made by improperly disposing of those chemical wastes to keep that plant open."

The case raises questions about stockpiling chemicals and "unjust profits." Attorneys argued that Velsicol may have pocketed between $23 and $63 million from not paying for proper chemical disposal, leading to significant settlements. The dump site later became a Superfund site, similar to the one in the Hollywood neighborhood, where Velsicol faced another class action lawsuit in 2008 for contamination, resulting in smaller settlements for affected residents.

During a monthslong investigation into the Velsicol facility site in Memphis, the Lookout submitted a public records request to determine the company's profits and cleanup expenditures over the past decade. The Tennessee Department of Revenue denied the request, citing sealed records.

Velsicol in Memphis is now navigating bankruptcy proceedings after filing in September. Discussions with the EPA and Department of Justice regarding future actions are underway, as confirmed by Harvell.

As part of the renewal process for Velsicol's Resource Conservation and Recovery permit, the company must demonstrate to the state its financial ability to cover the costs of cleanup. In its previous permit renewal, Velsicol committed to providing $2.5 million for this purpose.

Velsicol is required to submit its application to TDEC by April 3.

Following submission, TDEC will review and potentially revise the draft permit. This process can take over a year to complete, but in some cases, it can take as little as 60 days. If the review period is shorter, TDEC may hold public hearings on the draft permit as soon as this summer.

In the meantime, environmental justice movement organizers are trying to get a clearer picture of Velsicol's present operations and upcoming plans.

The community wants more opportunities to engage with Velsicol over its redevelopment plans and federal funding opportunities, similar to those offered by the Superfund site process, particularly as the Resource Conservation and Recovery permit's renewal occurs only once a decade — the only time public comment is required.


Upcoming Events