Cleanup efforts in a Columbia neighborhood found to have contaminated soil began in earnest Thursday with heavy equipment and contractors.
A dozen residents in the Edisto Court neighborhood have given the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency consent to dig up and remove soil from their yards after lead and arsenic were found in levels above federal safety standards in August.
The EPA started preliminary work in the small, tight-knit community just off Rosewood Drive in Columbia earlier this week, but contractors agreed to wait until after Halloween to begin any heavy construction.
Work was delayed for a few hours Thursday morning until a snag with a tanker truck could be worked out. Trucks, debris bins and other heavy machinery waited nearby. Later in the day, a trackhoe worked to remove shrubbery and tree roots on one site, while soil was hosed down on another.
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“Dust suppression is critical to this,” the EPA’s on-scene coordinator, Rick Jardine, said. “Before we can remove any of the encumbered soil, we’re going to wet all of this down.”
And while that was somewhat difficult to do Thursday with 15-20 mph wind gusts, Jardine said it was an important first step in keeping soil and dust in place.
The EPA has set up several particulate monitors in the area and will be testing air quality as the cleanup progresses.
The agency is renting an office in a mobile unit around the corner from the neighborhood on Commerce Drive and will have about a dozen people including equipment operators, technicians and a removal manager working in the area, Jardine said.
As dirt is removed from yards, that soil will be moved to a staging area, where it will be tested further. Those tests are different from earlier tests in that they determine to what degree toxins might be capable of leaching, or spreading, into surrounding soil.
“We know there is arsenic and lead in the soil,” said Ken Taylor, a state environmental department official that has been helping to investigate the source of the pollution. “This is testing the material to determine leachability from the regulatory standpoint.”
If the toxins have the capability of spreading, officials will classify the soil as hazardous waste. That waste will then be taken to a hazardous waste treatment facility out of state.
But Jardine said Thursday he is confident the material will pass those tests and will not be classified as hazardous based on preliminary test samples.
If the toxins are contained and aren’t expected to leach, the soil will either be treated on site or taken to a Richland County municipal landfill.
Jardine has said the agency’s goal is to be finished with the majority of the excavation work – including replacing residents’ soil and sod – by Christmas.
Lois McClinton said while she was glad federal officials were working with residents in the neighborhood on things such as outbuilding and tree removal, both she and longtime neighbor Donzell Belton still worried about health concerns.
“It’s hard when you think about it,” said McClinton from Belton’s front porch Thursday. “All of a sudden they want you to wash your hands and be careful what you touch.”
The state Department of Health and Environmental Control, McClinton said, has told them their water is safe for consuming. But McClinton refuses to drink it.
“I buy all my water now,” she said.
While the two, who have lived on the street since the late 1940s, will not have to have their yards dug up and removed, they live directly across a narrow street from neighbors – including Belton’s daughter – who will.
Both women said they still don’t understand what caused the pollution in the first place. State officials have pointed to a fertilizer plant that closed in the late 1930s as the most likely source of the pollution.
Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.