20 years later, Fort Gillem contamination still spreading

How we got the story

After receiving a tip that efforts to control contamination at Fort Gillem were failing, reporters Katie Leslie and Shannon McCaffrey dug into state and military environmental records detailing the scope of the problem. In doing so, they uncovered the delicate relationship between state, military and development officials. Leslie and photographer Bob Andres made numerous trips to Fort Gillem to speak with residents about their contamination concerns.

In the early 1990s the U.S. Army discovered hazardous chemicals dumped at Fort Gillem seeping into residential wells in neighboring Forest Park. The finding prompted the military to pass out bottled water and convert many residents to a county water system from their private wells.

But two decades and a base closure later, state officials say the Army still hasn’t done enough to clean up known and suspected carcinogens that are migrating from groundwater into surface water and, potentially, into the air residents breathe.

State environmental officials worry that dangerous concentrations of toxic industrial solvents could be present in nearby Joy Lake, where many fish and eat their catch. They fear that the underground concentration of one volatile solvent is so high that toxic vapor may be accumulating inside homes. They’re not convinced the source of the contamination is contained. And they say the Army hasn’t done enough to warn residents of potential danger.

Earlier this year, state officials grew so impatient that they turned to the environmental equivalent of the nuclear option: They asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to weigh the possibility of making Fort Gillem a Superfund site. That outcome could effectively kill a plan to transform the abandoned post into something Clayton County desperately needs, a job-creating industrial hub.

“We’re frustrated that it’s taken this long,” said Jim Ussery, assistant director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. “They’ve done a lot of good things, but we don’t feel the pace is rapid enough and there are a lot of areas we have concerns about.”

Instead, state officials say the Army has placed too much focus on preparing to transfer the land to Forest Park, which purchased 1,170 acres of the base last year for $30 million. Because of the pending sale, the state has asked for — but thus far not received — a plan outlining who will be responsible for the clean-up after the land is in the city’s hands.

Army officials say they are committed to cleaning up the base. They deny that they are placing economic objectives over human health. They say they haven’t dragged their feet but that environmental clean-ups are complicated, lengthy and rely on all parties to meet crucial deadlines.

“We’re never satisfied. We want it to be faster. But that doesn’t necessarily equate to that occurring,” said Glynn Ryan, the Army’s site manager for Fort Gillem and Fort McPherson, both of which were closed as a result of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process.

Ryan said the military is clear on its legal responsibility to manage contamination problems in perpetuity, and the Army plans to have the site cleaned up by 2018.

“We’re all interested in the same thing,” he said: “the protection of human health and the environment.”

As state and federal officials squabble privately and the EPA hovers in the background, more than Forest Park’s economy hangs in the balance. Residents near Fort Gillem say they want answers about whether their health is at risk.

“I’m scared now living here,” said Linda Seagroves, who worries she will be unable to sell her home of 13 years. “I’m stuck until I can find out something. Nobody is going to want to live here. I don’t want to live here.”

Military Wasteland

Opened in 1941 during World War II, Fort Gillem began as the Atlanta Quartermaster Depot and later became the Atlanta Army Depot. It earned its current name in honor of Lt. Gen. Alvan Gillem Jr. in the early 1970s when it became a subinstallation to Fort McPherson. Historically the base was used to ship supplies around the world.

At different times Gillem was home to the First U.S. Army, military police and even the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Though the base officially closed in September 2011, the military retained 257 acres which house a forensic lab, as well as Army, Navy and Georgia National Guard units.

The bulk of the base, however, is a reminder of years past, with abandoned warehouses and overgrown brush.

Neill Herring, a Sierra Club lobbyist, recalls a rollicking scene at the Depot in the 1970s that illustrates how casually dangerous substances were treated. Back then, the military would sell surplus items at auction, he said.

“I remember one time they were selling six tons of sodium, which is highly explosive, packed in steel drums … put that in water and it blows up,” he said. “The Army was selling it to Joe Shmoe.”

As on many military bases, parts of Gillem became dumping grounds for all sorts of chemicals and other materials. In addition to engine oil, solvents and rubber, the base is home to a German mustard gas bomb that was leaking when it was buried in the 1940s. That World War II nerve poison has been decontaminated three times, Army officials say, and there’s no evidence it remains a threat.

Over time, large underground plumes of volatile organic compounds began moving from burial sites near the northern and southern edges of the base into nearby neighborhoods. The plume that most alarms state and federal officials is on the south side and runs for nearly a mile beneath a residential neighborhood adjacent to a creek and Joy Lake.

The chemicals of greatest concern are the industrial solvents 1,1,2,2-tetrachloroethane (TeCA), classified as a possible human carcinogen, and trichloroethylene (TCE), a known carcinogen. Laboratory studies have associated both chemicals with liver damage and neurological effects.

Army testing of surface water south of the base found TeCA, TCE and lead in concentrations above the level the state considers acceptable. In one location, TeCA was measured at 19 parts per billion, far greater than the acceptable limit of .17 ppb.

State officials also worry that solvents, predominantly TCE, are vaporizing underground in such concentrations that they could collect in homes and the air residents breathe.

“We’re not saying it is happening. We’re saying there’s enough information to warrant an investigation to make sure it’s not happening,” Ussery said.

Army officials say they plan to do a vapor intrusion study in May. The last one was performed in 2003.

Lisa Hollingsworth-Segedy, a geologist who for years worked on Superfund site issues, has seen many that resemble Gillem.

“Federal installations are some of the nastiest sites, and there was no record keeping — you buried it and walked away,” she said. “You may think you know where you buried everything, but inevitably you’re going to dig into something you didn’t anticipate.”

The Army has taken some steps to remove the pollution. It has excavated some contaminated areas and in 2009 installed two pump-and-treat systems to extract toxins from groundwater before they migrate off the base. The systems have removed more than 4,800 pounds of volatile organic compounds from the groundwater, according to Army officials.

State officials, however, say evidence suggests that too many toxins are still escaping into groundwater, perhaps because not all the wells are deep enough.

The Army continues to study the problem and is working on a final remedy, a spokesman said.

Economic Future

Fred Bryant, executive director of the Forest Park/Fort Gillem Local Redevelopment Authority, has worked for years on plans to turn the military wasteland into an economically viable center for Forest Park. He sees it as uniquely situated to become a logistics hub for the region: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport sits just a few miles to the west, and nearby railroads connect to the Port of Savannah.

If all goes as planned, the project could bring permanent 2,500 to 3,000 jobs to Clayton County, which has an unemployment rate approaching 11 percent — far worse than the nation, the state or metro Atlanta as a whole.

Chris Cummiskey, state economic development commissioner, said that redevelopment at the former base is important to “helping the whole area rebuild and lift itself up.”

While Gov. Nathan Deal must sign off on the transfer of the contaminated land, roughly a third of the base, more than 700 acres aren’t flagged as contaminated and could be transferred to developers as early as this summer. Unless, that is, the governor decides to ask the EPA to take over the clean-up, at which point an array of ponderous reviews, procedures and approvals would come into play.

At the moment, all sides appear to be looking for a solution that averts that outcome.

“I really do think there are ways to achieve the results everybody wants here,” said Bryant, who prior to working in development was an attorney for the military.

Todd Silliman, an attorney with McKenna, Long & Aldridge who represents developers, said one option is a contract under which the Army would set aside funds so that private contractors can manage the remediation. “A private contractor can move faster,” he said.

Both the Army and state have indicated they are open to such an arrangement.

Residents Worry

William Turner has owned rental properties and a fishing business around Joy Lake for a dozen years. In recent months, engineers working on behalf of the military requested permission to drill in his lake for samples. But no one told him what they’re sampling for, he said.

Turner lets out an exasperated laugh when he recalls asking an engineer whether the fish were safe to eat. “He said, ‘Well, just don’t eat too many fish,’” he said.

He still hasn’t received any official word from the military or the state about what they found. He doesn’t know what, if anything, to tell his customers about whether it’s safe to eat their spoils or even come in contact with the water.

“We know something is wrong, because otherwise they wouldn’t spend the money to drill,” he said. “This year, I need to tell our customers something.”

Several residents living near the Fort Gillem fence line said they have long suspected their properties have been contaminated, but say they, too, have been left with few answers.

Meanwhile, state officials note the Army hasn’t yet complied with requests to post signs around the area warning residents of potential contamination off-base.

Eloise Belle Isle, who moved into the neighborhood in the 1950s, quit swimming in Joy Lake years ago. And forget fishing.

“I wouldn’t even put a fishing hook in it, and I wouldn’t eat a fish out of there,” she said.

Her husband worked on the base, she said. They were among the residents paid by the Army to switch from well water to the county water supply in the early 1990s.

“I have no conception of what is buried over there, and I have no idea what it could do to me,” said Belle Isle, who is 91. “But I’ve been here since 1951 and I’ve never had any health problems.”

Keith Bentley, chief of the state environmental agency’s Land Protection Branch, said the state doesn’t want to alarm residents, but hopes answers to the vapor intrusion and surface water contamination studies come soon.

“We don’t want to create panic, but we need to know,” he said. “We need to get some more information so we can tell people — whatever it is.”