I remember about 10 years ago, as a reporter in Columbus, when the state started the Voluntary Action Program as a way to get brownfield sites cleaned up around Ohio.
Brownfields are contaminated industrial or commerical properties, and the idea was to allow the companies that owned the sites to monitor the cleanup. Letting companies or property owners monitor their own cleanups made sense to state officials.
"Otherwise, a lot of them would just sit as they are," said Gunars Zikmanis, a VAP site coordinator for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
Environmentalists at the time called the VAP a means to let the foxes guard the henhouses. They questioned whether companies could be trusted to oversee the cleanup of their own messes.
I started thinking about this as I read recently about the contaminants leaching from test wells at the RB&W site at 800 Mogadore Road.
Lamson and Sessions Co. owned the property in 2005. As part of the VAP, the company had a wall of clay built 20 feet deep around several oil lagoons on the site, and they sealed it up with a plastic cap and fill dirt over top. The encasement was supposed to hold in old contaminants from years of manufacturing on the site. But over the past couple of years, nearby test wells have shown a slight increase in groundwater contamination. This is of particular concern because the site is only a few hundred yards from the Cuyahoga River — the drinking water source for the city of Akron.
"Our biggest concerns when the Voluntary Action Program first started were about, as a member of the public, the amount you could find out what kind of technology they were using, the timelines to confirm what was left on the property, and could they just cover it up, pave over it, without oversight from the government," said Marilyn Wall, who specializes in these kinds of issues as the conservation chair of the Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club.
Those concerns haven't changed much over the past decade as the program has developed, Wall said.
"There's so little they have to report on and have to tell you about," she said.
But finding out about chemicals leaching at the RB&W site in Kent was as easy as looking through some paperwork on file with the EPA and the Kent Health Department.
"The property owner is submitting this information voluntarily," Zikmanis said. Thomas Betts Corp. of Memphis, TN, currently owns the site and has hired a private environmental consultant to oversee the monitoring and cleanup. "They've done substantial work to find out what contaminants remain, where they might be migrating, and what further remediation is needed, if any," Zikmanis said. "They are required to submit an annual report, but this year (they) will provide quarterly progress reports of the cleanup at the company's initiative," he said.
It seems odd that the company would provide more environmental data about its cleanup process than is required by regulators. But the RB&W site is going through a special program under the VAP, called a Memorandum of Agreement.
"The MOA track program incorporates public involvement and up-front oversight by Ohio EPA personnel," according to the agency's website. The EPA goes on to explain why a company would do this. "Volunteers who follow this track of the VAP obtain both a Covenant Not to Sue from Ohio EPA and comfort that U.S. EPA will not require any additional cleanup at the site."
Obtaining a "Covenant Not to Sue" letter is a strong incentive for companies to participate in the VAP.
"One reason this was set up was to get property owners to clean up without dragging them into court," Ohio EPA spokesman Mike Settles said. Given limited resources, it's the best they think they can do. "There are so many, hundreds in the Cleveland area, we would not be able to oversee them all."
So it's good for Kent that the RB&W site is under this special program. It means more government oversight and public participation in the cleanup process. And one thing to consider, at least for the former RB&W property, is that Thomas and Betts Corp. is dealing with a legacy issue. They were not responsible for the years of polluting that occured on the site, yet they're working to clean it up.
"At this point, there is no imminent threat to the environment," Zikmanis said. The environmental consultants said they are currently inspecting the clay wall to figure out how to address the increased contamination around the test wells. "We're very happy with what the owner is doing," Zikmanis said.
Marilyn Wall at the Sierra Club said the MOA track might provide some additional oversight, but many brownfields don't get scrutiny. And that's worrisome.
"They're doing maybe a little cleanup and then covering it with topsoil. If they're not really cleaning up, you would never know," she said.