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SANDUSKY, OH – Brownfields: A Laissez-Faire Approach to Environmental Cleanup

March 23, 2010

Brownfield Development in our communities is coordinated through state-funded agencies to help encourage private  development in post-industrial regions. It focuses on the cleanup of sites that are less contaminated than Superfund sites, but still pose a threat to human health and the environment if the soil, sediment, groundwater and surface water haven’t undergone remediation before development.

Run through a laissez-faire approach to environmental protection and public health, the Ohio EPA administers a Volunteer Action Program (VAP) that enables private developers and property owners to measure contamination through a set of loose guidelines. These guidelines are specifically set up to decrease cleanup costs, decrease the amount of time spent on the cleanup and reduce the amount of government oversight during the cleanup – so as to eliminate liability to either party by qualifying as “due diligence”. The remediation criteria for land and groundwater is not as stringent if the property is going to be redeveloped for commercial or industrial use, and the criteria doesn’t account for any contamination that has left the site through water runoff or erosion.

These drums filled with hazardous waste are affiliated with the former Bechtel Mclaughlin site, but under VAP would not be considered necessary as part of any remedial work since they're located off-site.

Instead of the Ohio EPA acting as a traditional regulatory agent during the remediation of a post-industrial site, it allows for either the property owner or the developer to hire a VAP-certified third party firm to identify potential or existing contamination through various phases of environmental site assessments (ESA). In many instances, the ESA qualifies for funding resources through state issued grants and community revolving loan programs. During a Phase I ESA, historical records and the site itself are examined, but never include actual collection of physical samples or chemical analysis of any kind. If this review determines a likelihood of site contamination, then a Phase II ESA is implemented. This is when a collection of original samples of soil, groundwater or building materials are analyzed for quantitative values of various contaminants in order to determine if a Phase III cleanup is necessary. The most frequent substances tested are petroleum hydrocarbons, heavy metals, pesticides, solvents, asbestos and mold.

If a site has been assessed according to VAP, the interested parties pay the Ohio EPA to issue them a certificate stating that they are cleared for development to begin. If a site has only been cleaned up to meet commercial or industrial health codes, an environmental covenant is usually brought into the paperwork for long term land use agreements.

The environmental covenant essentially relieves all interested parties of any further cleanup liability, as long as the property indefinitely remains either commercial or industrial and never becomes residential property or a child-care facility. According to the Ohio Administrative Code (OAC), commercial and industrial land use is defined as having the potential exposure of adults and children who are customers, patrons, visitors and workers to dermal contact with the soil, inhalation of vapors and particles from soil and ingestion of soil.

In Sandusky, one of the most recent developments involving an environmental covenant had cleared the site of the former Bechtel-McLaughlin, Inc., where Menards, a big-box home improvement store, now sits on Route 250. The Erie Wire conducted a file review of this brownfield development at the Ohio EPA office in Bowling Green.

One of many hazardous waste spills from Bechtel Mclaughlin into the Sandusky Bay.

Beginning operations in 1945, Bechtel-Mclaughlin, Inc. was a chrome plating facility, where toxic chemicals were used in the polishing, buffing and sanding of steel. Stripping materials were used as caustic baths for copper and nickel plating before a final coat of chromium was applied. For nearly three decades, spanning from the late 1960’s to the mid 1990’s,  the Ohio Division of Wildlife and the Ohio EPA documented the company’s legacy of perpetual negligence in reporting chemical spills on the property and the dumping of hazardous waste into neighboring tributaries that flow directly into Sandusky Bay. During this time, their repeated violations of improper storage allowed for corrosive substances to seep through the streams as ominous, unnaturally-shaded plumes of greenish yellow and chalky white.

Most notably, in December of 1981, approximately 30,000 gallons of chromium plating waste were dumped into Hemminger Ditch. The pollution poisoned the waterways, killing off fish, birds and other wildlife that came in contact with it. Contaminated sludges were disposed of through an on-site surface impoundment area for an unknown period of time until the facility closed sometime in the 1980’s. In 1991, Bechtel-Mclaughlin paid a $15,000 settlement to the Ohio EPA for their violations. However, leftover drums of waste were found as recent as 1998, during the time Ohio EPA was considering the property for a Voluntary Action Plan.

VAP guidelines allowed Menards to develop after only a Phase I and a Phase II assessment. However, their environmental covenant between the previous owners and the Ohio EPA required the building to be no less than 16,500 square feet so as to minimize the exposure to leftover vapors from whatever remained on site at the time of redevelopment. Their large concrete floor also qualifies as a “vapor barrier”, mentioned in the covenant, which helps to minimize risk of exposure to employees and customers. Menards has demonstrated compliance in minimizing the risks associated with developing a brownfield site according to Ohio EPA’s Voluntary Action Plan. But what does that really mean when considering the amount of hazardous runoff that has occurred over the last forty years with this single site?

Click on Image to see images from The Erie Wire's file review of Bechtel Mclaughlin.

As the VAP achieves its goal of encouraging developers to rebuild economic opportunities for areas surrounding a post-industrial landmark, it has the potential to bury information about previous contamination that may be critical to the health of those who work or shop at the site.  It also leaves us questioning the degree to which contamination has affected the waterways, which are unbiased in their distribution of hazardous substances. It allows for responsible parties to disappear behind the smoke and mirrors of compliance and the taxpayer foots the bill. In this case, $618,000 designated for Brownfield sites was used to assist in the process of completing Phase I and Phase II remediation.

This is Part One (1) of a series regarding Brownfields | Economic Development | and the case of Bechtel Mclaughlin. The second installment will include audio and video of both parties arguing against and for the completed remediation of Bechtel Mclaughlin. If you have information about this Brownfield or would like to be recorded for a statement regarding this case, please email: The Erie Wire


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