EPA proposal in Waterloo met with controversy

Downtown Waterloo -- photo by David Wilson
Downtown Waterloo — photo by David Wilson

A proposal to install vapor mitigation systems at a former manufacturing building in Waterloo has alarmed some residents.

Groundwater and soil contamination at the former Waterloo Industries building at 300 Ansborough Ave. is the focus of the plan by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The comment period on the plan, which could start this summer, remains open.

On Tuesday, KWWL reported that the EPA would release “hazardous waste into the air of Waterloo.”

This morning, an EPA official said that KWWL’s report made “it sound like we’re going to be polluting the air and … has almost certainly frightened or angered some viewers who heard our remedy characterized this way.”

The news report gives no information about the chemicals involved. The site’s groundwater has volatile organic compounds (VOCs), mostly solvents like perchloroethylene (PCE) and trichloroethylene (TCE), which are dangerous in high concentrations.

The chemicals are already being released in and around the building in vapor form. The EPA plan will vent the vapors through a pipe above the roofline of the building, which is owned by JRL Holdings and has two tenant businesses.

In response to the KWWL report, Chris Whitley, public affairs specialist at the EPA office in Kansas, said, “A much fairer, and far more accurate characterization, would be to say that we are proposing to ventilate chemical vapors from this building to the outdoor air, where they will dissipate quickly and pose no harm to anyone in the community. These compounds in vapor form only pose significant health risk if they are allowed to reach certain levels of concentration in enclosed structure.”

Whitley characterized that type of vapor buildup as similar to the dangers of poisoning by carbon monoxide in an enclosed garage with a car running inside it.

“We anticipate no adverse impact to the environment or human health as a result of the proposed remedy,” he said.

A public hearing on the plan will be held March 14, 5-7 p.m., at the Black Hawk County YMCA, 669 S. Hackett Rd. in Waterloo. Written comments about the proposal will be accepted until March 21 and can be sent to Dan Gravatt, EPA Region 7 – AWMD/WRAP, 11201 Renner Boulevard, Lenexa, KS 66219.

Whitley said the EPA has not performed air sampling at this site to determine if any of the contaminants already exist in air at “background levels.” He said they do plan to explore that possibility.

The manufacturing facility was the site of industrial processing, including metal fabrication, from about 1946-97. The building is about a quarter mile from the Cedar River.

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