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Staff Photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press Chattanooga Creek as seen from 38th Street in Alton Park, upstream of the new pollution. Officials are sparring over what to do about newly found creosotelike contamination.

EPA and Southern Wood Piedmont are sparring over the past and future cleanup of a creosote-like material found seeping into Chattanooga Creek during the five-year, $25 million cleanup of coal tar completed in 2008.

Caught in the middle is the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which is mulling a hazardous waste management permit modification for Southern Wood Piedmont, a change put on hold until the federal cleanup was complete.

Now EPA wants state regulators to require more from Southern Wood Piedmont than just monitoring, yearly sampling and deed restrictions, changes proposed in the permit modification.

Federal regulators have formally protested the permit.

"EPA believes that the proposed remedy ... is insufficient," states a letter dated Nov. 10 and signed by Jeffrey T. Pallas, chief of EPA's restoration and underground storage tank branch.

But Southern Wood Piedmont, the now-closed wood preservation company that EPA says is responsible for the new pollution, wants state officials to adopt the permit changes before addressing EPA's concerns.

"[Southern Wood Piedmont] strongly disagrees with EPA's comments and encourages TDEC to finalize the draft permit modification," states a Nov. 23 response signed by William P. Arrants, president of Southern Wood Piedmont.

The proposed modifications would allow the pollution to remain in the ground and be monitored quarterly with "visual inspections." The modifications also call for yearly sampling at the creek's upstream and downstream boundaries along the Southern Wood Piedmont property and deed restrictions to protect land development on and around the pollution area.

TDEC spokeswoman Tisha Calabrese-Benton said state officials are working to set up a meeting with EPA officials to discuss the concerns.

"I do not know yet when that meeting will take place, but no permit decision will be made until it does," she said.

New pollution

The new creosote-like pollution -- officially termed non-aquaeous phase liquid, NAPL for short -- appeared in the second phase of the creek cleanup, which focused on the second mile of the two-mile polluted section.

Contractors dredged out the coal tar from the dried creek bed, only to come back the next morning to find the new pollution had seeped into the creek from the banks and bed.

In order to finish the coal tar cleanup, regulators OK'd a temporary fix. Contractors installed a patented material called Aquablok to the sides and bottom along 5,750 linear feet of the creek, boosting the project's cost by almost $4 million.

Meanwhile, Southern Wood Piedmont's state waste permit, up for renewal in 2005, was reissued with a provision that acknowledged "the need for further corrective action" on the company's 155 acres after the cleanup was complete.

The re-evaluation began in 2008 with the state's permit modification draft.

What's next?

Part of what the upcoming meeting must decide is how to reconcile the jurisdictions of two cleanup programs involved with the creek -- CERCLA vs. RCRA.

CERCLA -- the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act -- includes the Superfund and is geared more toward cleanup of closed or abandoned sites. RCRA -- the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act -- controls hazardous waste from "cradle to grave" and includes waste generation, transportation, treatment, storage and disposal. It is geared more toward waste management and monitoring.

"Southern Wood Piedmont's RCRA permit is not the appropriate or legally proper way to address any concerns about portions of the creek covered by the CERCLA remediation," states Arrants' letter.

Another topic of the meeting is expected to be a determination of just what the creosote-like material is.

Southern Wood Piedmont, which doesn't want to be solely responsible for the cost of a new cleanup, contends the pollution is not creosote, but coal tar.

Craig Zeller, EPA's creek cleanup manager, and Troy Keith, from the state's CERCLA remediation division, said they believe the material is aged creosote. Creosote and coal tar share the same 10,000 compounds, they said, but the new pollution is more liquid than the coal tar found everywhere else in the creek.

During the cleanup, Zeller and Keith tried to persuade Southern Wood Piedmont and three other "responsible parties" to undertake a $250,000 construction of a underground drain system to be used in conjunction with the Aquablok. The drain system could prolong the effectiveness of the Aquablok if the pollution could flow through the drain to a sump area and be periodically pumped for disposal offsite.

Talks broke down, however, when Southern Wood Piedmont said it would agree only if the other parties pledged to pay for the future monitoring, pumping and disposal costs. None would, according to officials.

Arrants' letter states Southern Wood Piedmont is willing to participate in a technical meeting with EPA and TDEC, but the meeting should not delay the permit changes.

Zeller acknowledged that there appears to be no pollution leaks now through the Aquablok barrier.

"And there may never be," he said. "But do we want to wait for it to fail?"

Contact Pam Sohn at psohn@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6346.

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