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Chemical Confusion

Lorton landfill applies for permit to correct levels of possible carcinogens in groundwater.

When residents of the Lorton Station neighborhood at the intersection of Gunston Cove Road and Route 1 purchased their homes, they knew a landfill was in their backyard.

What they may not have known was the level of carcinogens seeping into the groundwater from the landfill, albeit in small doses, from chemicals that technically should not be found in the landfill at all.

A report issued by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality listed that chloroform, tetrachloroethene, trichloroethene, vinyl chloride and beryllium were found in levels that exceed groundwater protection standards near the Rainwater Landfill, located at 9917 Richmond Highway.

“Chloroform can be used as a solvent,” said Armajit Riat, manager of the Interstate 95 Landfill, which is owned and operated by the Fairfax County Department of Waste Management. Trichloroethene, tetrachloroethene and vinyl chloride are all derivatives of chloroform, used in cleaning industrial sites and material. Vinyl chloride can be a byproduct of plastic pipes, such as PVC pipes, that are not properly disposed of, Riat said, while beryllium is commonly found near refineries and coal burning factories.

All five chemicals can be considered carcinogens, Riat said, if the exposure levels are high enough.

The standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) establishes a maximum contamination level of 80 parts of chloroform per billion parts of water as the highest amount that can be considered safe, Riat said. A maximum of four parts of beryllium per billion is considered acceptable, while five parts of tetrachloroethene and trichloroethene are safe. The highest amount of vinyl chloride allowable by EPA standards is two parts per billion, Riat said.

Currently, the level of chloroform found in the groundwater near the Rainwater landfill is at 100 parts per billion, said Ray Rainwater, owner and operator of the landfill. In the past, however, the level had approached the 200 parts per billion range. In 2002, Rainwater notified the Department of Environmental Quality that the levels exceeded the groundwater protection standard.

At that time, the Department of Environmental Quality began an investigation into the content of Rainwater’s construction and demolition debris landfill, which collects items like concrete, drywall and metal scraps that would not be allowed in municipal or sanitary waste dumps.

“There was a slight amount of chemicals similar to what’s used by dry cleaners found in the groundwater,” Rainwater said. “When that happens, we have to do some monitoring and corrective actions to make sure the problem is being treated.”

RAINWATER HAS applied for a permit that would allow for the adoption of a correction action plan and a corrective action monitoring program, that would require testing of the groundwater near the landfill at three month intervals during the course of two years, he said. If in that time, the levels of pollutants decreases, the time between testings may be extended. If the levels do not decrease, or become even higher, “we’ll have to change our monitoring plans,” he said.

The levels of contaminants “are not threatening anyone’s drinking water,” Rainwater said. “I’m not sure where the chemicals came from, but it’s nothing major.”

In fact, Rainwater said the chemicals “have been in the water since we started testing.”

The landfill originally opened in the 1960s, he said, and for the past several years, Joyce Engineering of Richmond has been conducting regular tests of the facility for compliance. The last test was completed in November 2005.

While Riat agrees that the contamination levels should not be a cause for alarm for people living near the landfill, he expressed concern that the chemicals were found in the water at all.

“These things should not be found at a CDD landfill,” Riat said. “These types of things should be moved to a more controlled and better monitored landfill. These chemicals are not allowed in CDD landfills in Virginia. I can’t understand why these things are here.”

WHAT HAS PROVED even more confusing to some residents on Old Colchester Road, which is the eastern border of the landfill, is the production of methane gas, a highly explosive byproduct often associated with decomposing garbage at municipal landfills.

“People have always been concerned about that landfill,” said Lorton resident Sallie Lyons. “That landfill has had a history of being considered toxic. People who have lived near it for a long time have said it’s not very well controlled and they’re concerned about the build up of methane gas near those new homes.”

Lyons said she has no doubts that methane gas is being produced at the Rainwater landfill.

“I’ve been up on the top of the landfill and you can smell it there,” she said.

Another resident near the landfill, Earl Delauder, said the presence of chloroform in the groundwater is an indication that “animal and human waste” could be found in the landfill, which is not supposed to contain organic compounds.

“Methane gas migrates. The houses built near the landfill are way too close,” he said.

Additionally, Delauder said any methane being produced at the landfill is not being properly treated.

“They dug wells and put in pipes to pump the gas into the air, which doesn’t correct the problem,” he said.” They need to do something with the gas. We don’t want to be breathing it in all the time.”

Rainwater said the methane produced is only in small amounts and is to be expected from any landfill, but Delauder is skeptical.

“Concrete and stone don’t produce methane gas,” Delauder said.

DURING A PUBLIC hearing scheduled for Wednesday, March 1 at the Lorton Library, residents will be able to ask questions about the landfill, any pollutants and what monitoring and cleaning techniques will be incorporated with the proposed corrective action plan.

“The public hearing is to allow the citizens to read the permit and see what is proposed,” said Larry Syverson, environmental engineer and geologist with the Department of Environmental Quality in Richmond. “The final decision on the permit will be made 30 days later and within 45 days we will decide to go ahead with the proposed methods to make changes.”

Syverson said the contaminants in the groundwater were found in “fairly low quantities,” and that most of the pollution was found directly under the landfill.

“The department doesn’t consider it a threat to neighbors in the area, which is why we’re allowing them to take a more passive corrective method,” he said of Rainwater.

It is expected that if the corrective methods are effective, it would take between 15 and 30 years for the contaminates to naturally break down, Syverson said. If no significant decrease has been noted within three years, “we may go to a more aggressive approach” to deal with the contamination, he said.

All landfills in Virginia monitor their own operations, he said. “They are required to submit information on a regular basis. No landfills are monitored by the DEQ. It’s all on a site-by-site basis.”