The now-barren land at 800 Mogadore Road is a lot cleaner than it's been in a long time — practically 100 years.
Still, the barbed-wire fence surrounding the property suggests it has a ways to go.
Last week, Eslich Wrecking Co. removed the last few yards of what environmental officials believe is the last soil tainted with residual oils and heavy metals from decades of manufacturing at the site. So far, about 20,000 tons of contaminated soil have been removed from the site.
"It's still very much a cleanup in process," Ohio EPA spokesperson Mike Settles said in a recent interview.
The current property owner, Thomas Betts Corp. of Memphis, TN, has contracted with Mentor-based HzW Environmental Consultants to oversee the cleanup of the site, which has been under way for years but became more visible with the demolition of the former RB&W plant in 2009.
Recent tests showed an increase in contaminants in groundwater at the property. Those test well increases are fueling concerns that a pollution containment system on the site has failed.
Matt Knecht, president of HzW, said Thomas and Betts is working through the EPA remediation process to clean up the site and address the potential chemical leaching.
“We’re really dealing with a legacy problem here,” Knecht said.
A dirty history
Richard Thomas spent 20 years of his life as a maintenance man for Lamson & Sessions, the nut and fastener manufacturer that occupied the plant there for much of the latter half of the 20th century — the predecessor to RB&W.
Thomas remembers a soil so polluted with manufacturing oil in the early 1970s that the residue seeped out of the ground and drained toward a low point at the southern end of the property. The oil seepage flowed into two "lagoons," where employees filtered the oil between the two pits and pumped a portion back into the plant where it was burned in a boiler to heat the building.
“It was the seepage off the top of the ground ended up in the lagoon,” he said. “Everything eventually went to these two pits. The oil would drain in there and we’d pump one side from the other.
"When the oil got over a foot, we would skim the oil on the top off and burn it in the plant," Thomas said. “It would burn like gasoline.”
According to Ohio EPA records, those lagoons were built between 1957 and 1963 to manage the oils and chemicals used inside the plant during manufacturing. The heavier, residual sludges that settled to the bottom of the lagoons contained heavy oils and chlorinated solvents that would taint the soil for decades.
In earlier years, workers actually pumped oil to the lagoons for management. By the time Thomas started there in 1973, they were using the lagoons to manage the oil runoff seeping out of the ground. Eventually, the seepage slowed, they stopped using the lagoons and they were filled in.
Kent resident Howard Boyle remembered working at Lamson & Sessions before going to college and again after graduation in the summers of 1968 and 1972.
Boyle remembered little about the oil management lagoons, but he will never forget one memory about the soil in particular at the southern end of the property.
"One time we got a job done early, and the foreman said 'Go get a Coke and go on out to the edge of the property and wait until the whistle blows.' So we did," Boyle said. "We went out and I sat down, and I’ll never forget, the soil, I thought I was sitting on the face of the moon. Nothing was growing. Everything was dead around us. It was just a very toxic feeling. You could smell it."
Today, that area of the property — about 1.8 acres — stands apart from the rest of the site. Concrete barriers surround a grassy dome constructed in 2005 by then-property owner Lamson & Sessions. The cap, in conjunction with an underground clay slurry wall, were meant to contain whatever chemicals may remain in the soil. It's that slurry wall that may have failed, causing the increase in contaminants in groundwater test wells monitoring the site.
The EPA considers the heavy metals once tested for at the site — such as chromium, hexavalent chromium, cadmium and cyanide — no longer of concern. The contaminants currently tested for, and increasingly present in groundwater on the site, are known as "COCs," or chlorinated organic compounds — soils laced with chlorinated chemicals.
The EPA currently tests for dichloroethene, trichloroethene and vinyl chloride.
Though the lagoons were filled in the 1970s, the danger remained from chemicals leaching through the soil into the surrounding water table.
The EPA, working with employees at the site, tried a number of early remedial steps to address and monitor contaminated groundwater. Through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Lamson & Sessions systematically closed hazardous waste and chemical storage tanks on the site.
In 1992, 22 test wells were installed to monitor the level of chemicals in the property's groundwater. Testing during that decade pointed to a "floating oil layer" present in groundwater on the site, according to EPA documents.
In 1997, a groundwater extraction system was installed that pumped groundwater out of the lagoon-area and treated the water to remove chemicals. Still, in 2000 cyanide was detected in 10 percent of the samples collected from the groundwater test wells. Ten years later, data from 2010 show the contaminants are about one-fifth the concentration of what they were prior to installation of the pump and treatment system.
The EPA shut down the extraction system in August 2005, and a few months later crews installed the cap and slurry wall to try and contain any contaminated groundwater to that 1.8-acre area on the property's southern end.
The latest report filed with the EPA, on Dec. 23, 2010, suggests increases in groundwater contaminants in the past two years "are indicative of some failure in the construction or design of the slurry wall and cap system."
A cleaner future
For 2011, Thomas Betts Corp. and its consultant, HzW, are planning to investigate whether the slurry wall has indeed failed or if some other factor is contributing to the recent rise in test well contaminant levels.
Both HzW and the landowner believe resolving the slurry wall issue, completing an ecological risk evaluation and developing a final remedy for groundwater sitewide are the remaining steps for bring the property to "closure" in accordance with several EPA programs managing the site.
Knecht, the environmental consultant managing the property's cleanup, envisions a much cleaner future for the property.
Knecht said the goal is to obtain a "covenant not to sue" letter from the EPA by completing the remediation phase for the property. That approval from the EPA would clear much of the property for redevelopment. The 1.8 acres enveloping the capped area, however, will likely be off-limits for years.
“Probably, yes, we would put a restriction on the property that the 1.8 acres embodied by the slurry wall and cap system is pretty much untouchable from a development standpoint,” Knecht said. “Could it be a park? Sure, because the cap is clean.”