$29 million agreement reached to clean Brunswick Superfund site

Cleanup of one of Georgia’s most toxic and polluted sites passed another hurdle recently when federal authorities, Georgia Power and others agreed to spend an additional $29 million dredging mercury and PCBs from creeks and marsh in Brunswick.

In all, nearly $160 million has been spent remediating the 760-acre site — the largest federally mandated cleanup in Georgia in at least a decade. And more federally mandated remediation is possible in the future, according to federal officials.

Environmentalists, though, say the long-awaited deal, 20 years in the making, fails to adequately clean the Turtle River and its tributaries. They also decry the prevalence of toxic chemicals in dolphins at levels higher than any ever documented.

Glynn County, the gateway to St. Simons, Jekyll and Sea islands, is one of the South’s most polluted communities with 16 hazardous waste sites, including four on the federal Superfund cleanup list. A toxic stew of chemicals, including mercury, petroleum and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, has seeped from the site ever since the Atlantic Richfield Co. opened an oil refinery there in 1918.

Georgia Power burned oil to fire power plants on the property. Other companies made paint, varnish, chlorine and bleach until 1979, when LCP Chemicals started making hydrochloric acid. LCP declared bankruptcy in 1991 and closed its factory three years later. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency soon designated the property a Superfund site.

A half-dozen company officials were sentenced to several years of prison for illegally dumping mercury and other chemicals into local creeks and knowingly endangering the lives of their workers. Fishing was banned in surrounding waters for years; warnings are still posted.

Honeywell International bought LCP out of bankruptcy in 1998 and took over liability for the site along with Georgia Power and BP (which bought Atlantic Richfield). The companies dug up 167,000 cubic yards of soil, sediment and waste. An additional 13 acres of marsh has also been dredged.

The settlement, brokered by the EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice, requires Atlanta-based Georgia Power and Honeywell to dredge and install protective caps on portions of four tidal creeks; place a layer of clean sediment on 11 acres of marsh; and restore areas disturbed by construction. Capping the contaminants in place, supposedly, will prevent them from migrating through the marsh and contaminating fish, dolphins and other animals.

“This settlement makes critical progress toward the remediation of the LCP Chemicals Superfund site and will minimize risks to people and the environment posed by contamination in the marsh,” U.S. Assistant Attorney General John Cruden said in a statement.

Critics, though, question the scope of the cleanup and, in particular, the remediation of mercury that may remain in the soil and seep into the groundwater.

“It’s insufficient. They’re not doing enough removal and active treatment (of the toxins),” said Peter deFur, an environmental consultant advising the Glynn Environmental Coalition. “They’re going to add a thin layer of sediment and cover up with riprap part of the contaminated area which is not logistically feasible in a marsh with meandering creeks and flows. It’s magical thinking.”

In 2009, state and federal scientists captured 29 dolphins between Brunswick and nearby Sapelo Island and discovered highly elevated levels of PCBs — 10 times greater than any other dolphins ever documented — in their bloodstreams. The dolphins suffered anemia, skin lesions, weak immune systems and low thyroid hormone levels. And they shared a unique PCB mixture known as Aroclor 1268 — the same chemical discharged over the years by LCP Chemical.

“The people who live here eat the same seafood as the dolphins,” said Daniel Parshley, the project manager for the Glynn Environmental Coalition. “Dolphins are called a sentinel species and are a good indicator of what can happen to people.”

Honeywell, which says it has already spent $130 million on the cleanup, and Georgia Power will continue to monitor potential environmental and health hazards at the site. The EPA also says the site’s groundwater and uplands areas may need further remediation.

“Environmental compliance is a top priority for Georgia Power, both for our current operations and sites, as well as sites we have owned in the past,” spokesman Jacob Hawkins said.