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Do You Live Near Hazardous Fossil Fuel Waste? How One City Addressed One of the Worst Toxic Sites in America

Toxic Superfund Sites

There are numerous environmental challenges associated with sites where former fossil fuel power plants once operated. Many power plants used to store toxic byproducts from fossil fuel combustion on site, often leaching into the surrounding environment over the course of many years. Many of these sites have been labeled as “Superfund sites” by the federal government. Superfund sites are known as some of the most toxic sites in the country, where chemicals from factories, landfills, and power plants were historically dumped, polluting the surrounding soil, air, and water. The process needed to clean up these sites is extremely difficult. The Pine Street Canal Superfund site in Burlington, Vermont is a prime example of the challenges associated with cleaning up toxins left behind by fossil fuels.

Source: Pixabay

The Pine Street Canal Superfund

The Pine Street Canal Superfund site is located on a 38-acre parcel in Burlington, Vermont. The canal makes up about 6 acres of the parcel, while the rest of the 32 acres are comprised of wetlands and forested land. The parcel is located directly to the east of Lake Champlain, which has long been called the nation’s sixth Great Lake. Moreover, the water within the parcel remains connected to Lake Champlain by a small 30-foot canal entrance. The rest of the parcel is bordered by commercial and industrial areas. The Burlington Railyard borders to the north, Burlington Electric Department and big-box stores make up the southern border, while the vibrant Pine Street arts district lies to the east. The site is zoned by the City of Burlington as the Barge Canal Deed Restriction Area (named for the sunken barges that lie at the bottom of the canal). This restriction prohibits development on this parcel due to the concern that toxic substances could be released by construction projects.   

Source: Marshall Distel

Jurisdiction

The Pine Street Canal Superfund site lies entirely within the limits of the City of Burlington, but the official jurisdiction is influenced by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). The CERCLA, more commonly known as Superfund, was established by Congress in 1980. This law provided the federal government with authority to directly address sites where hazardous substances threaten the environment or public health. Superfund establishes strict requirements concerning known hazardous waste sites, institutes liability for persons or corporations responsible for the release of hazardous waste, and has created a trust fund to ensure that resources are provided for cleanup when responsible parties cannot be identified (EPA, 2017). The Superfund designation also authorizes short-term removals of hazardous waste and long-term remedial actions.

History

The discovery of the toxins located within the 38-acre waterfront parcel dates back to 1976 when the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) were preparing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for a proposed highway called the Southern Connector (City of Burlington, 2018). As part of the EIS, FHWA and VTrans were required to evaluate subsurface geotechnical borings throughout the length of the proposed highway. While investigating the geotechnical borings from the Pine Street site, elevated levels of organic compounds associated with coal tar were found (EPA, 2018).

The site was found to contain toxic contaminants such as polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and heavy metals (TJC, 2017). The final EIS was completed in 1979 and determined that the construction of a highway over the Pine Street Canal site could result in the release of toxic contaminants into groundwater systems, as well as Lake Champlain (City of Burlington, 2018). Therefore, the Southern Connector project was delayed and has remained unbuilt, even though a section had already been constructed prior to discovering the toxic waste.

Source: Marshall Distel

Mission 

While the mission to restore the Pine Street Canal Superfund site evolved over time after many years of collaboration between the principal partners and members of the public, the finalized mission aimed to cap the contaminated soils in place with a sub-aqueous cap, install a wetlands isolation cap, develop improvements to on-site stormwater management, restore the wetlands within the parcel to improve wildlife habitat, and ultimately prevent the contaminated soils from entering Lake Champlain.

Fossil Fuel Pollutants

The original Pine Street Canal was designed and constructed in 1869 to facilitate the transportation of lumber from Burlington’s thriving lumber port on the shores of Lake Champlain (UVM). However, beginning in the early 20th century, the site was transformed into an industrial-sized coal gasification plant. Between 1908 and 1966, the gasification plant was in operation on the Pine Street Canal site (EPA, 2018). Wastewater, coal tar, oil-soaked wood chips, and numerous other volatile organic compounds were dumped on site within the wetland. Coal gas was historically used in Burlington for heating and municipal lighting prior to the arrival of electric streetlamps and the widespread adoption of natural gas for heating (UVM).

Source: Pixabay

EPA Intervention

In 1983, the EPA officially designated the Pine Street Canal site as a Superfund site. Two years later, the EPA conducted an emergency removal of 500 cubic yards of coal tar and constructed a series of pollution-control gates to reduce the likelihood of exposure to the hazardous substances (EPA, 2018). Karen Lumino, the EPA Remedial Project Manager, explained that the initial excavation of coal tar was a preliminary remedy that was meant to be followed up by more thorough investigations and a final remedial plan.

Karen spent over 20 years working on this project and provided numerous important details about how this project has progressed over the years to the public. Karen reported that by the early 1990s, the EPA was able to release a proposal for the cleanup of the Pine Street Canal Superfund site. However, the EPA’s initial proposal was rejected by some state and local officials as well as members of the public because it involved the excavation of the remaining waste and storing it within a 25-foot-high on-site landfill that would have been capped in place by a massive concrete structure (UVM).

Source: Pixabay

Community Action

Following the rejection of the EPA’s initial plan, a group made up of a diverse set of community members, environmental groups, project stakeholders, and potentially responsible parties started to convene with the aim of identifying a more ecological remedy. The group that became known as the Coordinating Council was instrumental in the development of a finalized cleanup plan.

By 1998, after working with the Coordinating Council for around five years, the EPA released a Record of Decision that outlined a plan to implement a subaqueous cap in the canal to prevent the migration of toxins into the lake, conduct long-term monitoring, and impose land use restrictions within the site (EPA, 2018). The remedy was constructed in 2004 by capping the contaminants in place, which has allowed for the redevelopment of adjacent parcels, protected Lake Champlain from future contamination, and restored the wetlands within the parcel at a cost that amounted to only 20% of the EPA’s first proposed remedy in 1992 (TJC, 2017).

Funding

The funding for this environmental remediation project was provided by a number of sources. After the contaminated parcel was originally discovered, the EPA was able to use funding from the trust fund that was established as part of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act to conduct an emergency removal of coal tar. However, after finalizing a list of 23 potentially responsible parties, the U.S. Department of Justice and the EPA filed a Consent Decree in federal district court requiring the 23 defendants to spend $6 million to design and implement the remediation plan for the site, reimburse the federal government for the initial sitework valued at $5.25 million, and contribute $895,000 to address past damage to natural resources (Kaufman, 1999). 

Source: Pixabay

Accomplishments

There have been numerous significant accomplishments that have made the restoration of the Pine Street Canal Superfund site a model of success. While the initial recommendation from the EPA in 1992 to seal in the contaminants with a massive concrete structure was overwhelmingly rejected by project stakeholders and members of the public, the final remedy has been a success for the local ecosystem and the community of Burlington.

The original 1992 cleanup plan was a high-cost and high-impact proposal that would have involved a significant excavation project followed by the creation of an on-site landfill covered in concrete. After a series of robust public outreach initiatives, the EPA agreed to work with the Coordinating Council to find a more amenable remedy that would minimize risk to public health, aquatic life, and other ecological processes by reducing the potential for exposure to contaminated soils.

Fossil Fuel Contamination to Environmental Remediation

The innovative approach that led to the establishment of the Coordinating Council helped to guide a remediation plan that was focused on minimizing disturbances to the fragile wetland ecosystem, preventing contaminants from reaching Lake Champlain, and eliminating the risk to public health. Key stakeholders such as local landowners, U.S. and Wildlife, the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, and numerous other environmental groups worked together to create an ecologically focused remedy to address the fossil fuel pollutants.

In 2004, the remedy to seal in the contaminated soils with a sand and silt cap was completed, while on-site stormwater enhancements and a series of wetland restoration initiatives were also included. The man-made canal was also reconstructed to provide a natural habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. Today, the site has been restored to a wild landscape that features a diverse ecosystem with wetlands, a growing forest, and 38 acres of shoreline habitat for a wide array of flora and fauna.            

Source: Pixabay

Persistent Threats

While the Pine Street Canal Superfund site has been restored as a diverse wetland ecosystem, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, heavy metals, and volatile organic compounds still remain buried underneath the sand and silt cap (Kaufman, 1999). Moreover, the site’s groundwater remains contaminated with harmful toxins, which is why deed restrictions have been implemented to prevent the migration of contaminants. After the EPA completed a review of the site in 2006, it became apparent that oil and coal tar had started to seep through the sand cap (EPA, 2018).

While there was no evidence that the contaminants had migrated into Lake Champlain, this threat prompted the construction of an amended cap with the addition of more impermeable soils to prevent future contaminant migration. Furthermore, in 2013, the parties responsible for the remediation of the site agreed to pay for subsurface vertical barriers and monitoring wells to ensure that contaminants were prevented from reaching Lake Champlain. Over time, the cap will have to be replaced, which is why the EPA still conducts a thorough site review every five years.

The last review was conducted in 2016. While the groundwater was found to still be contaminated, the integrity of the cap remains reliable with no elevated levels of contaminates found within the surface waters. However, given recent urban revitalization of the area surrounding the Pine Street Canal Superfund site, there has been increasing pressure to develop nearby parcels, which could potentially disturb the contaminants still present under the canal. Overall, with upwards of 1,300 additional contaminated Superfund sites around the country, numerous other communities are struggling to deal with toxic levels of leftover fossil fuels and other chemical pollutants.

Sources

City of Burlington. (2018). “The Champlain Parkway.” The City of Burlington.

EPA. (2016). “Third Five-Year Review Report for Pine Street Canal Superfund Site.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

EPA. (2017). “Superfund: CERCLA Overview.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

EPA. (2018). “Superfund Site: Pine Street Canal Burlington, VT.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Kaufman, A. (1999). “DOJ/EPA File Consent Decree for Pine Street Canal Superfund Site Cleanup.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

McVarish, D. et al. (2001). “Pine Street Canal Superfund Site.” John Milner Associates.

TJC. (2017). “Manufactured Gas Plant Superfund Site.” The Johnson Company.

UVM. “The South End: Barge Canal.” University of Vermont.

VBM. (2016). “EPA completes reviews at nine Superfund sites in 2016, two in Vermont.” Vermont Business Magazine.

Wisloski, J. (2015). “Worry over toxins at South End brownfields shared by corporate interests.” VTDigger.

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