Is groundwater contaminated at S. Fulton ‘onion odor’ plant site?

A chemical processing plant responsible for sickening hundreds of local residents in the summer of 2006 almost certainly will remain closed, as several parts of the plant were dismantled and disabled over the past several years, according to officials with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

Philip Services Corporation has had to remove contaminated soils from the site, and some chemicals have penetrated the groundwater system in the area, according to environmental documents from Fulton County dated October of last year.

The additional concern is that the PSC plant, located on Spence Road in Fairburn just across the Fayette-Fulton County line, is immediately adjacent to Whitewater Creek, which is a drinking water supply for Fayette County. The Citizen is working to determine the testing results for groundwater wells installed at the plant, but that information was not available at press time Tuesday afternoon.

The PSC plant treated industrial wastewater and released it into the Fulton County sewer system. In the wake of the 2006 chemical release, Fulton officials ruled that PSC would not be eligible to renew the discharge permit for six years.

Because that time frame will lapse in December, area resident Connie Biemiller Thomas asked the Fayette County Commission Thursday to help convince Fulton officials to continue to deny the wastewater permit. The commission agreed to send a letter urging such action to the Fulton County Board of Commissioners.

Thomas, who was one of the ones sickened by what was described as an “onion-like odor,” said she would never be satisfied until PSC “closes the entire facility down and they move out of town.”

“Until they do that, I guess I’ll keep coming back until I’m a merry old lady,” Thomas said.

PSC still has a state permit to use the site as a transfer station so hazardous waste can be pumped from smaller trucks into larger trucks, according to Jeff Cown, manager of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s solid waste management program.

According to PSC’s website, the Fairburn facility is still used for that purpose.

The onion odor was eventually tied to the presence of aerosolized MOCAP wash water — a combination of the organophosphate ethoprop and a chemical odorant propyl mercaptan — that was released into the air.

The release sickened more than 770 residents in Fayette and south Fulton counties who told authorities they began exhibiting symptoms such as prolonged nausea, vomiting, headaches and a variety of respiratory problems including first-time diagnoses of asthma and pleurisy.

Thomas herself was personally affected by the chemical exposure, as were a number of residents living in a 40 square-mile area around the plant.

The way PSC treated the industrial wastewater, it had the effect of spraying pesticides over residents in the area 24 hours a day, seven days a week for three months and perhaps as long as six months, Thomas said.

A study of pet maladies in the area showed that animals were suffering affects from the exposure as early as May 2006, Thomas said, “but PSC did not admit to poisoning our citizens until June 29, the day I started calling people.”

PSC ultimately settled a lawsuit filed against it regarding the chemical exposures, agreeing in 2008 to pay $4 million to more than 2,200 households that were in a three-mile radius of the plant.

The company also agreed in December 2006 to physically cap its connection to the Fulton County sewer system and to not reapply for such a permit for six years. The company was also required to remove contaminated soil from the site and replace it with clean soil.