Accord Closein Groundwater Contamination Case p.58

By: Mark Fitzgerald AFTER FIVE YEARS of environmental testing and legal, political and regulatory wrangling, the Orlando Sentinel looks to be only a few weeks away from reaching a settlement with the city and state on the cleanup of groundwater contaminated by trichloroethylene.
A Florida Department of Environmental Protection official and the newspaper's spokeswoman said the framework for a consent order is in place.
All that is needed to conclude this sometimes tangled pollution case is test results that identify, if possible, the parties responsible for one of three plumes of chemicals that have contaminated groundwater under downtown Orlando.
Those test results should be available sometime in July, said Jeff L. Newton, environmental supervisor of the Florida DEP Site Inspection Section.
The final cost of cleanup for the Sentinel, too, will depend on what those tests find.
However, if it is enacted as envisioned, the consent order would bring to a close one of the biggest pollution episodes in the newspaper industry ? and one with implications for numerous other papers.
At issue in Orlando was the contamination of some 67 million gallons of groundwater by trichloroethylene, commonly referred to as TCE.
Though its use now is severely restricted, TCE is a solvent that was once widely used by newspapers and other manufacturers as a metal degreaser. The federal Environmental Protection Agency now classifies the chemical as a "probable" carcinogen for humans. Ingestion can cause vomiting, abdominal pain, liver damage or unconsciousness.
The Sentinel used TCE between 1978 and 1981 ? and, according to its attorney, actually broke the story of the TCE contamination under downtown Orlando.
Testing showed the contamination at some sites was as much as 24,000 times the amount of TCE permitted in drinking water. However, the Sentinel was hardly alone in using TCE downtown.
Indeed, the Sentinel's own environmental consultants, Geraghty & Miller Inc. of Reston, Va., identified some 65 businesses ? ranging from a trophy manufacturer to a steam laundry to a delicatessen built on the site of an old gas station ? that used TCE or a similar solvent.
Nevertheless, attention focused almost from the start on the Sentinel.
The newspaper is classified as a "large quantity generator" of hazardous waste under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. According to the Florida DEP's draft report on the Orlando TCE contamination, in the 1980s the newspaper monthly generated between 1,000 and 5,000 gallons of waste, mostly such common industry wastes as mineral spirits, glycol ether and printers ink.
The Sentinel contended, based on its consultant's study, that the contamination on its own property had migrated there from someplace else. Samples from the Sentinel's own test wells did not find the kind of residual soil contamination that might be expected if the contamination had originated on its property, the consultant said.
Test well sites were a source of friction between the newspaper and state a few years ago as the two sides argued over access to Sentinel property.
DEP's own testing concluded that the Sentinel was indeed a source of contamination. Specifically, the draft report identified the Sentinel property as the source of the so-called Plume A, one of three plumes of contamination downtown.
In an effort to spread the cost of the cleanup among other downtown businesses, the Sentinel enthusiastically endorsed an idea proposed by a former congressman to create a special taxing district. The plan, however, was opposed by many other downtown landholders and appears dead.
Instead, the consent order apparently on the verge of adoption would divide the cost of cleanup according to responsibility for each plume.
Under this arrangement, the Sentinel would be responsible for the cost of cleaning up Plume A, and the city of Orlando would pay for cleaning up Plume C.
Holding up the agreement are continuing tests to identify the party or parties responsible for the source of Plume B. In its 1994 draft report on the contamination, the DEP said "it is concluded that Plumes A and B may be interrelated."
None of the parties are willing to go into a consent order until this potentially open-ended liability is settled.
While cost would be apportioned according to responsibility for plumes, under this arrangement, the actual cleanup will attack the entire contamination at once, Florida DEP's Newton said.
DEP tests on Plume B will likely be concluded in July, Newton said in a telephone interview from the test site.
It's not at all clear at this point what the cleanup would cost the Sentinel.
"I don't think anybody will know for a while," Sentinel spokeswoman Bette Jore said. "We haven't signed anything yet and there are still a lot of steps to go."


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