HATTIESBURG — Officials have been conducting testing at and near the former Hercules plant to determine whether contaminants have spread into surrounding neighborhoods.
Testing is being conducted by officials with the state Department of Environmental Quality, the Environmental Protection Agency and Ashland Inc., Hercules’ parent company at wells within a half-mile radius of the former chemical plant as well as onsite.
Willie McKercher, with MDEQ’s Groundwater Assessment and Remediation Division, said samples were being taken from test wells to understand where contaminants are present.
“We are going away from the (Hercules) facility in the path of flow to see how far away from the facility those chemicals have moved,” McKercher said. “All the information will be used by MDEQ, EPA and Hercules to clean up contamination.”
Ten residents and a local church sued Hercules and Ashland in October, alleging pollution in nearby neighborhoods.
“Upon information and belief, for decades, Defendants improperly disposed of hazardous substances and other wastes in the industrial landfill, sludge pits and/or impoundment basins located at the facility … despite knowledge of the hazardous and toxic nature of said wastes,” the complaint states.
Hercules’ and Ashland’s answer to the U.S. District Court lawsuit denies many of the plaintiffs’ claims but acknowledges many of the test results confirming contamination in soil, air and water near the plant.
The lawsuit alleges testing performed as part of a 2011 Environmental Protection Agency administrative order found toxic chemicals in the groundwater adjacent to two of the plaintiffs’ homes as well as chemicals exceeding both residential and industrial screen levels in the ambient air.
A second aspect of testing will focus on the former Hercules plant site. These tests will look at specific levels of contaminants in the ground and whether they pose a risk to the environment or people.
Another major part of the Hercules cleanup is the removal of contaminated sludge from the plant’s impoundment basin, which started in December.
Rick Sumrall, with MDEQ’s Compliance Enforcement Division, said the cleanup of the impoundment basin is a priority to be able to close out the Hercules site.
Contractors have been dewatering the sludge and transporting it to a sanitary landfill for disposal. The sludge contains varying levels of benzene and hydrogen sulfide and is suspected to be the cause of problematic odors that regularly plague neighborhoods near the Hercules site.
Contractors have been performing the dewatering process indoors to avoid creating an odor nuisance, but the sludge was proving difficult to dewater.
Dewatering operations have been on hold until the contractor can test the sludge to better understand what technology to use to dewater it.
Tim Hassett, a Hercules representative, said the sludge is being tested by the dewatering contractor.
“The technology for dewatering the sludge in the impoundment basin was not working effectively,” Hassett said. “The contractor has access to some other technology that can work better, but they have to test the sludge to understand which system to use.”
Hassett said his company is working closely with MDEQ and EPA to comply with environmental regulations and laws to make the site whole again.
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