Officials hopeful contamination at GM site 'manageable'

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Marcia Nelesen
Monday, December 16, 2013

JANESVILLE—Longtime Janesville residents might be surprised the General Motors plant doesn't glow at night after almost a century of intense industrial production.

The list of potential contaminants includes everything used to make and run vehicles— paint, thinner, fuel, brake fluid, transmission fluid and antifreeze. Heavy metals and volatile organic chemicals could include chromium, lead, ethylene glycol, xylenes, and benzene.

The worries about environmental contamination are magnified because of the plant's location near the Rock River.

Well, surprise: Any contamination at the GM site apparently is not as bad as some have feared.

“At this point, there's nothing that's standing out as a big issue,” said Shawn Wenzel, a state Department of Natural Resources hydrogeologist and point person in Janesville working with GM.

That's “really good, great” Wenzel said. “I think, in part, it's because of (GM's) efforts in the past. They took care of things when they found it, which they are supposed to do by law.”

Monitoring wells have found no plume of pollution traveling underground from the plant, which is especially reassuring, experts and city officials said.

Jay Winzenz, assistant city manager, is hopeful the company can finish its cleanup by the end of 2015, when many hope the plant will be taken off standby status.

Wenzel is studying a recently submitted, 6-inch-thick, 4,000-page document from GM that includes its site investigation work plan. It includes historical information from past spills or other releases into the environment, how those were remediated and results of new testing of the same areas.

It includes data from about 32 monitoring wells drilled around the plant's perimeter to monitor groundwater migrating from under the property.

The DNR will study the company's risk assessments and data to see if it matches the DNR's own assessments.

The DNR does not yet have data on the JATCO site, which operated on about 100 acres south of the GM plant, but Wenzel believes the JATCO site is largely cleaned up.

“They are working very diligently,” Janet DiMaggio, DNR hydrogeologist, said of GM.

She stressed the draft is just the beginning of the process that will give the site a clean bill of health, but initial documents show the contamination should be “very manageable,” DiMaggio said.

It's GM's job to come up with a plan to mitigate any environmental hazards, said Linda Hanefeld, program manager for the DNR's South Central Region Remediation and Redevelopment Program.

“This plan tries to identify what the problems are out there.”

The DNR has been made aware of past areas of contamination, Hanefeld said.

“They've been cleaned up where we don't feel they are a threat to human health and environment.

 “What we've been made aware of and looked at thus far is a very small portion of the overall facility,” she said.

Still, any groundwater contamination would be localized and not be moving toward the river, she said.

GM liable

If the Janesville plant had gone through bankruptcy with the old General Motors, the site would have qualified for millions in federal grants for environmental cleanup made available to communities with idled automotive production facilities, Winzenz said.

The Janesville GM plant was placed on standby, meaning the plan would remain idle to be available for future needed production.

 “Because our plant was on standby, it was owned by the new General Motors and was not eligible for any of those funds,” Winzenz said.

Under state and federal law, General Motors remains liable for any contamination on the site.

The city might also be able to work with the DNR to limit GM's exposure to some of the environmental issues, Winzenz said.

Winzenz said he is aware of a couple of “hot spots” found on the JATCO site that might have petroleum contamination, but they were “extremely isolated.”

Kim Tucker-Billingslea of GM's remediation team said GM has a crew on site managing the idle facility. It has hired an environmental consulting firm, Conestoga-Rovers & Associates, to create a remediation plan.

The monitoring wells, “We found concentrations (of chemicals) that are typical of the bedrock in that area, and so we were pretty pleased with the results,” Tucker-Billingslea said.

“We're working closely with (the DNR) to make sure that we're following any protocol to identify any issues if they come up,” Tucker-Billingslea said.

 “We try to be a good corporate citizen and work with agencies so we can develop a plan that is a win-win situation.”

Winzenz said GM has done a “pretty good job” of addressing general maintenance issues over the last five years. The company asked to turn off the water at the facility, but the city denied the request because that would have deactivated the fire suppression system, Winzenz said.

That means GM pays to heat the plant, which is part of the city's strategy, Winzenz said.

“It gets expensive. The more expensive it is to continue to have that (plant idle), the more pressure is on GM to dispose of it.

“If it wasn't costing them anything, there would be little motivation to do anything with it,” Winzenz said.

'More myth than accuracy'

Jerry Oleston was the facilities manager at the GM plant for about a decade before it closed.

He, too, believes any contamination is not significant because GM tested for contaminants any time it expanded the facility.

“There were a couple cases where we did find some things, and we would clean them up before we did the addition,” Oleston recalled.

That usually meant removing the soil, he said.

Through the years, spills or other releases into the environment were reported to the DNR and cleaned up as they happened, such as when a barrel tipped or ruptured.

“We would report any kind of fluid (spill) and follow procedure to make sure it didn't get into the sewers and river,” Oleston said.

Mike Merrick of Janesville retired as senior environmental engineer at the GM plant six months before the plant closed in 2008. He worked in the environmental division for 25 years.

Merrick said he expects studies to show the environmental condition of the plant is in good shape. His department worked closely with the DNR if there were any issues, such as spills.

The company had a “robust” environmental department, including two environmental engineers on staff and met international standards for environmental compliance, he said.

Significant money was spent trying to make sure things didn't cause problems and, if they did, to fix them, Merrick said.

“I'm not saying that there might not be some minor stuff, but let's say the reputation is more myth than accuracy.

“Everybody was trained, and we had a slogan, Soar Towards Environmental Excellence,” he said.

Merrick said Samson Tractor operated a foundry on the site beginning in 1919 before General Motors bought it and expanded.

A “very thorough analysis” might find some contamination in the older sections, “but it would be very minor compared to the size of the plant,” Merrick said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was formed in the 1970s and its regulations, including a retroactive reporting mandate, were finalized in the early 1980s, Merrick said.

“General Motors did file those reports, and most of the things we filed on were offsite,” Merrick said.

Those items included waste the company dumped in two landfills on Black Bridge Road across from the current landfill and in Wheeler Pit in La Prairie Township. Those sites were used before EPA regulations were written, he noted.

Wheeler Pit has since been removed from the Superfund list, while the Black Bridge landfills are periodically monitored.

Wenzel from the DNR said a remediation case at the GM plant is open because the company recently removed tanks.

Studies are ongoing, and the DNR still must see results from the plant's interior, Wenzel said.

It's “great news” there is apparently no plume of contamination, Wenzel said.

Generally, contamination sinks. Once it hits groundwater, it moves with the groundwater. In this case, it would end up in the Rock River, Wenzel said.

Wenzel termed GM's efforts so far as very positive.

“A lot of times, we're usually the bad guys forcing (somebody) to get in and do something,” he said.

Any company hired to tear down part or all of the facility would be responsible for protecting the environment at that point, Wenzel said.

Winzenz, assistant city manager, remains hopeful any environmental issues can be taken care of by the end of 2015 when the contract between GM and the UAW expires.

At some point, samples will be collected by boring through the plant's floor, Winzenz said. He suspects some contamination will be found in the older parts of the plant.

Many speculate the newer areas are fairly clean, Winzenz said.

“I think General Motors has done a good deal of environmental work already, he said.

“We're just not privy to it.

“I think there's a possibility that it can be done before 2015.”

John Beckord, president of Forward Janesville, is hopeful, too.

“We might be surprised, either way, at how clean it is or whether there are some hot spots.

“We'll just have to see,” Beckord said.

Lost time

Winzenz said the “most tragic thing” about being on standby has been missing out on the federal money that had been available.

 “That would have just been an opportunity to have a clean site that would have been ready to reuse three or four years ago rather than two years from now,” he said.

Even so, the delay might have served a purpose.

“I feel like this community had to go through a grieving process, and part of that grieving processes was the denial piece, which I think resulted in the UAW negotiating the standby status of this plant,” Winzenz said.

“And they were holding out hope in the community that production would come back to Janesville.

“I don't think—as time has gone on and things have changed—that there's that same sense that GM is going to be coming back,” Winzenz said.

“I think that people have come to terms with that.

“The majority of the community, the shock has worn off, they've grieved it, accepted it, and now moved on.

“And that's the opportunity that we have now.”

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