‘They have to stop this practice’
For the McElheneys, the extent of the benzene contamination from Southeast Terminals only came to light years after Jarrett’s chemotherapy regimen had beaten back his leukemia. Yet state and federal enforcement records pinpoint on-site releases of the chemical in 1991, a year before the family moved to the area. At the time, managers of the terminal — jointly owned and operated by BP and Unocal Corp. — discovered a leak of diesel fuel seeping through soil where an underground pipeline was buried.
Terminal employees removed 40 cubic yards of “petroleum contaminated soils,” according to a report filed by BP with the state, and recorded benzene on site at levels as high as 81 ppb. Groundwater samples showed even higher concentrations: 12,000 ppb.
State regulators found such pollution “exceeds our ‘trigger’ levels,” a 1991 letter to the company states, and requested further action.
Under Georgia law, the company was required to develop what the EPD calls a “corrective action plan,” which, among other things, would have delineated the terminal’s benzene plume, as well as identified nearby public water wells.
In a 1991 reply, BP promised the EPD it would file its plan in four months.
Nine years later — after the McElheneys had tested their well water and the EPD had issued a 2000 citation against BP for failing to submit a “timely” corrective action plan — the company finally carried out that requirement, records show.
BP, in charge of the terminal’s daily operations, declined to comment for this article. At different times, Unocal, Louis Dreyfus Energy and TransMontaigne have been BP’s partners at the site. TransMontaigne, its current partner, did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls. TransMontaigne purchased Louis Dreyfus Energy in 1998. Chevron, which merged with Unocal in 2005, declined to comment.
Today, state regulators attribute their own delay in cracking down on the diesel leak to an internal debate over which EPD division had authority over the terminal’s benzene contamination — its underground storage tank program, which has purview over the pipeline; or, its hazardous waste branch. For years, compliance officers in that branch, along with their counterparts at the EPA, had been monitoring the facility’s practice of dumping benzene-laced wastewater on site — a practice later confirmed by terminal employees in court depositions.
In 1990, the EPA issued new rules classifying benzene as hazardous waste and requiring bulk-oil terminals to have permits for discharging the “bottoms water” in petroleum tanks. This wastewater can become tainted by the chemical when mixed with gasoline. Rather than treat the water, Southeast Terminals funneled it through an “oil/water separator” to skim off fuel, and then dumped it into a ditch on the ground.
Company records at the time show that terminal supervisors admitted they drained the wastewater “direct into streams” or “a dike area which eventually drains offsite into a stream.”
“I remember thinking, ‘They have to stop this practice,’” said John Williams, an EPD environmental specialist who inspected the terminal in 1993 and documented the dumping.
Three months later, the EPD issued a notice of violation against Southeast Terminals, forcing supervisors to test the bottoms water. Regulators found benzene at levels four times greater than the legal limit of 0.5 ppb, prompting the EPA to take action.
“We saw an issue there,” said Darryl Hines, of the EPA’s regional office in Atlanta, explaining why officials initiated a 1997 civil enforcement action against the facility.
In its complaint, the EPA accused BP and then-partner Louis Dreyfus Energy of violating federal hazardous-waste law — disposing waste without a permit, and failing to categorize it as hazardous. The agency ordered the companies to shut down the oil/water separator, and implement a plan addressing “any groundwater contamination.”
By the time Jarrett developed leukemia a year later, the EPA had negotiated a settlement with the companies and laid out a series of requirements for cleaning up the benzene. Without admitting fault, BP and Louis Dreyfus agreed to spend at least $100,000 to remove leaking underground pipelines and install above-ground infrastructure. They also paid a penalty of $15,000.
When BP finally filed its long-delayed action plan, it revealed the presence of what EPD project officer Calvin Jones described as a “dissolved hydrocarbon” plume containing benzene — “a bigger problem than we had thought.” The chemical, concentrated at 500 ppb and counting, had spread beyond the immediate spill areas. Of greater concern to regulators, the plan identified “free product” in groundwater.
“There was actually gasoline floating on the water,” explained Jones, of the EPD’s underground storage tank program, who oversaw the facility’s protracted cleanup. Referring to gasoline’s ability to dissolve in water, he said, “You can’t get higher concentrations of benzene … than free product.”
Despite a decade-long cleanup — 35.2 million gallons of contaminated groundwater and 1,009 pounds of benzene were collected — the chemical still saturates much of the nearly 19-acre Southeast Terminals site, records show. Last year, the EPD issued a letter declaring “no further action required,” which released the companies from remediation. At the time, the state-sanctioned benzene count remained at 1,440 ppb.
Over the years, enforcement records show, company consultants and regulators alike have tried to trace the path of the wastewater at the terminal. One company analysis details a trail beginning at the property line and then spilling into adjacent woods before hitting a tributary. Another document, produced by the EPA, depicts the discharge as moving offsite through woods and into a resident’s backyard.
“It’s where the drainage flows,” said Jeffrey Pallas, deputy director of the agency’s hazardous waste division in Atlanta, who oversaw the case against BP and Louis Dreyfus, explaining that the document, complete with photographs, was only intended to verify the hazardous-waste law violations.
“We cannot substantiate from the documentation we have that the benzene left the site,” he said.