Toxic Tanks: After disaster in West Virginia, locals look toward Chattahoochee

mowen@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 25, 2014 

For half a century, toxic and combustible materials have been stored in a couple of dozen storage tanks on the banks of the Chattahoochee River.

The tank farm -- located near popular venues such as the National Civil War Naval Museum, the South Commons softball complex, A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium, the Columbus Civic Center and the Chattahoochee RiverWalk -- is owned by the Georgia Ports Authority and leased to Omega Partners LLC, a St. Louis-based company that manages several such facilities.

It has traditionally stored aviation fuel and ethanol in the tanks, but relatively recently it has started storing sulphate turpentine, a byproduct of the wood pulping process that smells strongly of rotten eggs and sulfur.

Last year, when residents in the Historic District of Columbus complained of a sulfur or rotten egg smell wafting through the area, the odor was traced to the Omega facility and the sulfate turpentine.

Now, in the wake of the recent environmental disaster in West Virginia, some wonder about the dangers of storing toxic liquids on the banks of the Chattahoochee River.

On Jan. 9, thousands of gallons of at least two toxic chemicals leaked from a similar storage tank facility on the banks of the Elk River near Charleston, W.Va., and just a few miles upstream from a large regional drinking water intake.

The spill rendered the drinking water unusable for about 300,000 of the region's residents for about a week. Potable water had to be trucked into the area. Schools were closed and hospitals were heavily affected.

Columbus State University environmental science professor Troy Keller said the effects of a toxic chemical spill into the Chattahoochee would be "fairly dramatic from a biological point of view."

Not only would there be immediate deaths of exposed fish and other wildlife, he said, but also it could cause chronic exposure that could cause disease and other long-term problems among wildlife and humans.

"The chronic issues associated with chemical exposure can lead to human health effects, too, because we could be eating organisms that are contaminated with chemicals they might ingest," Keller said.

Contract negotiation

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson has recently been in touch with attorney Joel Wooten, who is a member of the Ports Authority board. She said she has received complaints about the odor coming from the tanks not only from area residents, but also from visitors to the recreational facilities nearby.

The board is currently negotiating a renewal of Omega Partners' lease, which is set to expire in July, she said, and part of the new contract could be an agreement not to store sulfate turpentine at the facility.

"It clearly has a strong odor and has caused some issues," Tomlinson said. "We've asked that they consider as a condition that they stop storing that particular chemical there. The Ports Authority has said that they will take that into consideration and have that as part of their negotiations."

Tomlinson said the Ports Authority said if they can't reach an agreement with any tenant, they would consider negotiating with the city for a different use of the property altogether.

"If the authority cannot find an acceptable tenant for the property, they will engage the city in further discussions on the disposition of the property," Tomlinson said.

Trains and planes

Though the 50-year-old facility is owned by the Ports Authority, it is no longer used as a port.

No barges have come up the river to it in over a decade, and none are likely until or unless the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers restores a navigable channel to the Gulf of Mexico, said Chattahoochee RiverWarden Roger Martin.

Instead of coming up river, the toxic liquids are shipped by trains, which rumble down Sixth Avenue, past Booker T. Washington Apartments, across Veterans Parkway and through the Historic District before crossing the promenade, switching tracks near the Coca-Cola Space Science Center, and backing up to the tank farm on riverside tracks -- all while loaded with combustible and toxic materials.

The RiverWarden said he would hate to see the city lose the port because of its potential for industrial recruitment and the potential impact on local fuel prices if it were closed.

The aviation fuel stored there is used at the Columbus Metropolitan Airport and the ethanol is added to gasoline stored at tank farms on Miller Road, which no longer has rail access. Having to bring those materials in from farther away could increase local prices, Martin said.

Martin said he would like to see a safely operated tank farm that is regularly inspected by professional engineers to ensure the structural integrity of the aging tanks on the site.

In a reply to a Freedom of Information Act request for documentation of structural and environmental testing, Robert Morris, senior director of corporate communications for the Georgia Ports Authority, wrote: "A diligent search throughout various divisions of the Georgia Ports Authority fails to reflect that there are any documents in possession of the Georgia Ports Authority which would constitute public records and which fall within the requested items."

James McCurry, the port authority's senior director of administration and governmental affairs, said inspections, maintenance and regulatory compliance are the responsibility of the tenant, Omega Partners, as is responsibility for any environmental problems stemming from the tank farm. Ports Authority documents indicate that Omega Partners carries $25 million in pollution liability insurance. A request for comment Friday from Omega Partners was not returned.

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