Eagle Picher Superfund Site –Science versus Instinctual emotion

Posted 8/9/2019

    Certainly, science checking instinctual emotions would be better beforehand than afterward given forethought about the results of choices and actions would avoid troubling afterthoughts.  Yet evolutionary wise those instinctual emotions were here long before language even gave words to them. 

    Today, Eagle Picher, EPA and the Socorro Community struggle against emotions while waiting on science to develop, produce and deliver an optimized solution to clean up the toxic materials and their vapor from a time when the excitement of profit and jobs were the focus of that yesterday.  Today, the fear of health complications from exposure to contaminants in the soil, water and recognition beginning in 2014 of gaseous vapors entering our homes is demanding science provide a solution yesterday.  

  Reviewed at last night’s EPA hosted community meeting in Socorro that it has been years in studying the impact of the Eagle Picher Superfund site to determine the best choice of action for cleaning up the region with limited resources. The reason it is declared a Superfund site is because of the complexity of the situation and clean-up requires science has the time to use technology to identify the best action to protect and serve public health.  Geologist Janet Brooks explained before the meeting the original issue with Trichloroethylene (TCE) morphed over the study period to include DiCholorethlyne (DCE) and in 2014 the vapor or volatile organic compounds (VOC) from those toxins became a concern.  The scientific study first had to determine if the plume was growing (dynamic) or fixed in area (static).  Knowing this is one key to determine how to tackle the problem which takes measurements and time to determine.  Secondly, once the area of impact was known then the geologist could begin to examine what we knew about the soil layers beneath the earth layer we see every day.  Knowing whether the soil layers were sandy loam, bedrock or clay to name a few types is important to understand how those vapors will be allowed to move through the layers or become trapped/contained which through Geographical Information Systems-Mapping the science can then use the data to identify those regions, homes or locations which will allow vapors to escape to the surface and pose a risk.   The risk to homes as Geologist Brooks explained is also variable depending on whether the home is a mono-lithic(single piece) slab or a mobile home with a closed or open skirting.   A solid concrete foundation slab will be a barrier to vapor while an elevated mobile home with a closed skirt could allow vapors to accumulate and enter the home while an open skirt may actually let it ventilate away depending on air-flow.  The key risk to human health is based on the concentration level of toxic exposure and factors that eliminate or reduce exposure amounts reduce risk.  Given only one magic bullet to clean up and resolve the contamination, one can see taking the time to properly aim in a complex situation is critical while the threat and actual fear of harm is immediate.

    50 sample wells through the affected area are being studied and monitored.  The groundwater to surface distance is 20ft at some points in the region while others it is 80ft below the surface.  Sarracino Middle School was discussed as not being affected by the plume.  The State Police operation near the epicenter of the plume one citizen raised concerns about was informed that it was not being delivered ground water from beneath it reducing personnel exposure at the facility.  

    The last minute need to change the meeting location from City Hall to Finley Gym due to a great public turnout also made the planned presentation and engagement with the public more challenging given the lack of audio-visual equipment for both presenter and public for a Question and Answer engagement.  A future meeting is being planned and audience suggestions that permission forms be made at the next meeting to allow EPA and their subcontractors and agents to enter private property to study vapor ingress in to homes be made available to concerned home owners was well taken.  However, it was recognized that such permission is not trivial and some property owners may seek legal counsel and others may restrict or refuse access.  Access is necessary to determine if vapor mitigation is necessary and some home owners already identified have refused mitigation and pursued mitigation independently from the EPA.  The EPA representatives stated they are working hard to be good stewards of the tax dollars they are operating with in resolving the Eagle Picher superfund site while working with due diligence to protect the public health in the most effective manner possible.

    Emotions are high and scientific data on identifying the scope and impact of the environmental pollution is improving over time as an optimized solution to the toxic cleanup is pursued.  The importance of the public meetings and transparency to the general public on a very complex science and technology issue is a worthwhile effort to assuage public’s genuine fears while allowing the science to deliver the most effective resolution.  The public meetings work to make the intangible public threat faced more visible through the data in maps and numbers gathered and provided by science and technology over time.  EPA hosted meetings allow the often invisible actions and work of the government to resolve or reduce the harm now and tomorrow to be communicated to the general public acknowledging the valid concerns of citizens and home owners.  Future meetings are being scheduled to continue shining light on the problem and its solution and Socorro residents are asked to stay calm through being informed as a long term solution is being formulated.