Before entering the dim warehouse, contractors in hazardous materials suits duct-taped their sleeves as an extra precaution. Breathing through respirators, they approached hundreds of metal canisters and organized the drums according to the reactivity and pH of their contents.
Pickens Plating Inc., a family-owned zinc plating company, closed in March after Calhoun County foreclosed on the property. In June, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) coordinators evaluated the site–identifying 300 drums and 41 vats of unlabeled chemicals, including strong acids and bases. Cleanup procedures began in October and are expected to cost approximately $500,000.
“This situation is par for the course,” said Jeff Lippert, EPA on-scene coordinator. “Plating shops go out of business and leave plating materials behind because they are expensive to properly clean up and dispose of.”
Kevin Markovick, city of Albion director of public works, had refered a news article to Mike Herman, city of Albion manager, about the EPA cleanup taking place at an abandoned foundry in Marshall. Herman had also previously worked with the EPA when Harvard Industries, another foundry, closed in Albion.
“Kevin and I drove to the foundry and happened to catch up with Jeff,” Herman said. “Two weeks later, he agreed to perform an evaluation of the Pickens site.”
Pickens Plating was labeled a time-critical cleanup, which means it has the potential to become an emergency. The June-October delay in cleanup was due to the Marshall cleanup being prioritized.
“We had no idea what was in any of them,” Lippert said. “Say there was a fire—acids in general react with water and the contents of the vats could create a toxic vapor cloud. Eventually something would happen to cause an emergency, but anything that’s a potential emergency gets put on the backburner when an emergency site is declared.”
No analytical analyses have been performed on-site, but a chemist has performed basic chemistry on samples to screen for pH levels, reactivity and corrosivity, Lippert said.
Even labeled containers are tested.
“We have to sample and screen labeled drums,” Lippert said. “You can’t trust that the contents of the labeled vats.”
Analytics cost approximately $1,500 per sample, so instead nonreactive chemicals were combined in large quantities to minimize the expense — a process called waste streaming.
Contractors identified seven drums of hydrofluoric acid, which Lippert described as “really bad stuff.” Acids are often diluted for use in college laboratories, but workers identified pure nitric acid that was 0 pH, which is the most acidic level on a pH scale of 0-14.
“The dangers, aside from hydrofluoric acid being an acid, is that the fluoride itself is toxic,” said Andrew French, professor of chemistry. “It travels readily through tissue and embeds itself in bone tissue, softening and damaging the bone. Once there, it is very difficult to get rid of… some folks can lose the exposed limb as a result.”
According to Sigma Aldrich Materials and Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), hydrofluoric acid may be fatal if inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin. Inside and outside on-site air quality meters are used to alert workers if the air becomes toxic, said Lippert. No cases reporting harmful air quality have occurred.
Lippert expects the bulking and waste-streaming to be done by Thanksgiving, and hazardous waste will be moved to a treatment facility identified after the holiday. Non-hazardous materials, such as empty drums, will go to a landfill in Marshall. The EPA plans to finish cleanup in December.
“Our objective is to eliminate threats to human health and the environment,” Lippert said. “When I am finished, the chemicals will be gone and the threats will be removed.”