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EPA finalizes plan to cap Kanawha River dioxin


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Federal regulators have finalized plans to cap dioxin-contaminated sediment in a 14-mile stretch of the Kanawha River west of Charleston to address toxic pollution left in the river by Monsanto’s former chemical plant in Nitro, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced this week.

The EPA said in a news release that it had reached a deal with the company to install stone caps over about 9 acres of sediment to “reduce the mobility and concentrations of dioxin in the sediments.”

The plan is the EPA’s preferred alternative, chosen over conducting a broader and more expensive dredging project to actually remove material contaminated with dioxin from the river.

Agency officials concluded in a January report that, while their plan “does not physically remove contaminated sediments from the Kanawha River,” the capping alternative “will reduce the amount of [dioxin] that will be directly available to the river water.”

Roy Seneca, an EPA spokesman, said the plan is estimated to cost about $9.7 million. A timetable for the start of the work and the project’s completion is not yet available, Seneca said.

Under the settlement, Pharmacia LLC, a Monsanto successor company, is required to pay a financial assurance, such as a bond or letter of credit, within 90 days.

The EPA’s announcement comes roughly 13 years after the federal agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection announced they had reached a deal to further investigate lingering dioxin contamination in the river and come up with a plan to clean up that contamination.

The cleanup — covering an area of the Kanawha to the Winfield Locks and Dam — would address toxic contamination of the river that dates back many decades, to when Monsanto began in the late 1940s to make a powerful herbicide ingredient called 2,4,5-T.

In its best-known use, the federal government bought 2,4,5-T to make Agent Orange, the defoliant deployed widely in the Vietnam War. Monsanto’s 2,4,5-T was contaminated with a highly toxic dioxin compound known as 2,3,7,8-TCDD.

Dioxin has been linked to cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, endometriosis, infertility and suppressed immune functions. The chemical builds up in tissue over time, meaning that even small exposures can accumulate to dangerous levels.

For years, Monsanto disposed of waste containing dioxin in dumps at Heizer and Manila creeks, north of the company’s Nitro plant. A class-action lawsuit, later settled, alleged that Monsanto’s operations also had sent dioxin-contaminated dust over the area, contaminating homes and businesses.

Repeatedly, Monsanto entered into agreements with the EPA, to clean up at least some of its dioxin contamination, but the river remains contaminated to the point that anglers are warned against eating fish from that part of the Kanawha.

The EPA first publicly proposed the capping alternative about a year ago, with the release of a lengthy study of various alternatives.

Other alternatives examined included two proposals for dredging, to remove contaminated material from the river. One of the dredging proposals was estimated to cost $26 million; the other, $41 million, the report said. Dredging could result in short-term risk increases — as material is churned up in the river — but dredging “accelerates long-term recovery,” the report said.

The earlier report said the capping proposal would “have a faster anticipated recovery trend than the dredging alternatives” because it would not “result in sediment suspension.” Also, the dredging would still leave some “residuals” that would require capping of some or all of the dredged areas, the report said.

The EPA said the settlement agreement includes a requirement for long-term monitoring of the levels of dioxin in fish caught from the river.

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