The clock is running out on decades of Army promises to clean up toxic wastes oozing from Fort Gillem into nearby neighborhoods, according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Unless a legally binding cleanup plan is in place by the end of the year, state environmental chief Judson Turner will recommend placing the shuttered base on the federal Superfund list, he warned in a June letter. That decision, which would require the concurrence of Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, would put the brakes on plans to redevelop the property as an industrial park.
The state and the Army have been at odds over the cleanup for years. Fort Gillem was used as a depot to house Army vehicles, and military personnel servicing them dumped toxic industrial solvents in several locations around the post before such disposal was outlawed.
Known and suspected carcinogens have migrated off the base and into the groundwater, streams and ponds nearby. Some environmental officials worry the toxic matter may also be moving from the water into air residents breathe.
Impatient with the pace at which the Army was cleaning up its mess, the state recently asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to look at whether Gillem would qualify as a federal Superfund site. The answer was a clear yes.
Those developments — which could prove costly and embarrassing for the Army — appear to have grabbed the attention of military brass. Earlier this month, the Army sought and received permission from the Clayton County Board of Commissioners to set up several monitoring wells off the base for one year.
In his June 3 letter to the regional EPA administrator, Turner said he would not immediately recommend a Superfund listing. Despite what he called the “historical friction” between the state and the military, he said, “I am hopeful that we have been able to open a direct line of communication with more senior leadership in the Army chain of command.”
Nevertheless, he wrote, if that hope does not bear fruit in coming months — in the form of a binding legal agreement rather than vague assurances — he will recommend that Deal ask the EPA to take over the cleanup.
The Army did not respond to the AJC’s requests for comment. But state officials are encouraged that the military is drilling 16 new wells around the base’s perimeter to provide additional monitoring.
Few appear to want to go the Superfund route. For local officials, it would scuttle efforts to redevelop the base into an industrial or transit hub. State officials say the designation would give the cleanup effort new muscle but would also slow it down substantially.
“I’m still motivated by the end goal, which is to clean up this site and move the site back into productive use,” Turner said in an interview.
But emails obtained by the AJC through the federal Freedom of Information Act show skepticism among EPA staff that the cleanup will be effective without the force of Superfund, also called the National Priority List or NPL.
In a Feb. 10 email, Dawn Taylor, chief of Superfund site investigation for the EPA’s southeast region, wrote: “I personally am hoping that the state will stand strong on the need to list unless we have some sort of firm and enforceable (and NPL equivalent) agreement in place.
“But I will be happy with any outcome that gets cleanup in an adequate manner at this point,” Taylor added.
Opened in 1941 in during World War II, Fort Gillem began as the Atlanta Quartermaster Depot and later became the Atlanta Army Depot. It served largely in a support role to nearby Fort McPherson and was used to ship supplies and maintain transport vehicles.
The base officially closed in September 2011 as part of the military’s national downsizing, but the Army has retained 257 acres on the site. They house a forensic lab as well as Army, Navy and Georgia National Guard units.
Engine oil, solvents and rubber have all been buried on the base, often with no documentation of where they were dumped. Additionally, a leaking German mustard gas bomb was buried there in the 1940s. Army officials maintain that the bomb was decontaminated and does not remain a threat, although the emails obtained by the AJC reveal that its location, too, is unknown.
Over the years, underground plumes of toxic volatile organic compounds spread from their burial sites on the north and south ends of the base into nearby neighborhoods. Environmental officials worry most about a mile-long plume that stretches off the base’s southern edge, extending beneath a residential neighborhood adjacent to a creek and Joy Lake, where fishing is a frequent pastime.
“I don’t like to think too much about it, but I worry. We all do,” said Geneva Thomas, 83, who has lived in the neighborhood adjoining Fort Gillem for four decades. “Not much I can do. But we know what’s in there and it’s not good.”
Fred Bryant, executive director of the Forest Park-Fort Gillem Local Redevelopment Authority, said the Army has become more cooperative of late. He is set to meet with Pentagon officials later this month about the possibility of privatizing the cleanup, which could speed it up. Those negotiations will determine when the Army can hand over parts of the base for development.
Bryant said the location of the site, just four miles from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and close to rail lines, is appealing to several companies looking to house distribution or logistics centers.
But first the contamination issues must be resolved.
“We don’t want to buy 700 acres from the Army only to find out it’s been listed as a Superfund site,” Bryant said.
The Story So Far
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote in April about contamination at Fort Gillem, a former U.S. Army base south of Atlanta, where hazardous chemicals dumped decades ago are spreading under neighboring homes. Among the possible solutions is putting the site on the national Superfund list, under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the AJC, the EPA recently released new documents on Fort Gillem. They show that the state has deferred asking for a Superfund designation, giving the Army until the end of the year to produce an enforceable cleanup agreement. The documents also reveal that some EPA officials are skeptical a cleanup will move forward without a Superfund listing.