Lane Plating Works has been perched on Bonnie View Road since 1950 and it’s still there, despite the property being so toxic that federal and state environmental agencies had to intervene in 2018. But all of that may change within months, the agency told community members in a September meeting.
The Environmental Protection Agency said it recently found evidence that the building was being used for shelter at times, and that a “yellow cloud” of dangerous hexavalent chromium was stirred up whenever someone entered the vacant building.
That prompted the agency to advance its timeline for remediating the property in what it calls a “time-critical removal action,” which will see the building and the most contaminated soil removed within months.
The former electroplating facility closed when the company filed for bankruptcy in 2015. It was added to the roster of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund sites in 2018. (A Superfund site is part of an environmental program that addresses abandoned hazardous waste sites.) The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the federal agency found evidence in 2016 that the company had contaminated the land upon which it sits with the byproducts of its business—dangerous waste in the form of hexavalent chromium, arsenic, lead, and more.
A 2016 report from the EPA said that nearly 94 tons of toxic waste was carted from the site, and a TCEQ report the following year found that they could not find accurate summaries from the company regarding its hazardous waste disposal, saying that the company “copied and pasted the same annual waste summaries for the last three years of operation.”
As part of the process for the long-term cleanup, the EPA worked with the community to form a community advisory group. That group met with state, federal, and city environmental officials to push the process along. In its September meeting, the group’s chairman, Allen McGill, told the committee that the manufacturing building and remediation of the site was now slated to “happen much faster than we anticipated.”
Eric Delgado, who will head the EPA’s new effort, said parts of the long-term cleanup action will need to happen sooner because of a break-in at the site. Members of the Lane family, who still live next door to the facility, told the agency that trespassers had been cutting holes in the fence and accessing the site to steal copper wiring and scrap metal.
“We went out to the facility, we opened some doors, there was evidence of trespassers there, soda cans and bottles that looked pretty new,” he said. “When we opened the doors, you could see this cloud of yellow dust just suspended in the air.”
That yellow dust was hexavalent chromium, and air samples indicated that it was present in the building at “unacceptable levels” of 18 and 8.2 micrograms per cubic meter. Delgado said an analysis indicated that the risk for an adult or adolescent trespasser to the site would be “over four times the acceptable range.”
“You know in Peanuts, the character Pigpen that walks around with a cloud of dust?” he said. “Anyone who walks around in that building generates a cloud full of hexavalent chromium. I don’t believe there is any imminent danger outside the interior of the building.”
The break-ins, combined with other long-range data that was being compiled, forced the EPA’s hand. Staff determined that there was an “imminent and substantial threat” to the environment and the health of the community.
The agency has completed its assessment, and Delgado said he will soon issue a memo that will start the process of removing the building and the contaminated soil from the site. The staff will begin walking the property and making plans for removal with EPA contractors in mid-to-late October, and a community meeting will follow in early November. Preparation for demolition and soil removal will likely begin in mid-to-late November, Delgado said, adding that the team will need to check for additional hazards like asbestos and lead-based paint.
What is hexavalent chromium?
Hexavalent chromium is a toxic chemical that is used in industrial processes like plating, colored glass making, and paint pigments. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, it’s hazardous when breathed in, ingested, or touched, and can be lethal in large doses. Repeated exposure can cause respiratory issues like asthma and bronchitis, as well as lung cancer.
“Touching it might cause sores and loss of skin, depending on the concentration,” Jessica Price with the TCEQ explained. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it can cause long-lasting allergic contact dermatitis, and if open wounds are in contact with it, it can cause skin ulcers.
The contaminated soil will be removed (in some cases, they’ll dig more than 5 feet below the surface) and replaced with clean soil. The EPA estimates that roughly 800 tons of demolition debris, 12,000 tons of non-hazardous soil, and about 3,000 tons of hazardous soil will be disposed of in EPA-approved landfills. The entire operation will take about six to seven months to complete, and will cost an estimated $5 million.
Delgado also explained that the agency would have air quality monitors placed on-site during the removal process, providing the staff with realtime data. If the air quality is significantly impacted, the work will pause until engineers can determine how to correct the problem. “Our main goal is to never have any off-site impacts,” he said.
Agency staff were quick to reassure the committee that there was little danger to the neighborhood around the plant, despite the chromium contamination. The reason for the action was largely because of the interest from the trespassers, although committee members were quick to point out that the area had a significant homeless population that likely is unaware of the dangers associated with the site.
Ed Mekeel, a community involvement coordinator with the EPA, told the group that this emergency action was in concert with the longer-term cleanup planned as part of the site’s Superfund designation.
“We know that there’s a threat, we know that people have trespassed onto this site, and have been inside the building, which has contamination in it, so it’s time for us to get some work done here over a certain amount of months instead of the years it’s been that we’ve gone through,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, we’re still going to be doing a long-term clean up of the site, that part will be unaffected, but we want to take the worst parts of it that are showing a danger now, and getting rid of it.”