3,000 containers still on West Melbourne site, still a hazard

11:54 AM, Aug 19, 2013   |    comments
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Video: Battle over chemical waste drags on

Wayne Dickinson is seen at 1080 S. John Rodes Blvd., West Melbourne. Chemicals stored there have been the subject of a dispute between him and federal and state environmental regulators. / MALCOLM DENEMARK/FLORIDA TODAY


West Melbourne, FL (Florida Today) -- More than a year after the feds fenced them in, thousands of gallons of former military chemicals in aged containers still sit inside trailers, box trucks and along the ground at 1080 S. John Rodes Blvd.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency worries children could enter the site and be exposed to dangerous chemicals or a storm could cause a bad spill and a much more expensive cleanup.

The chemicals sit near a drainage canal and within 100 yards of residential areas Sheridan Lakes to the south and Greenwood Village to the east.

EPA says the chemicals pose an imminent threat and must go. But more than a year after discovering them and consolidating hundreds of the chemicals from small containers into large plastic jugs, environmental officials have yet to remove the hazardous substances.

Wayne Dickinson, the Satellite Beach man who owns them, says his chemicals are usable products, not hazardous waste. He says EPA is unfairly persecuting him, when all he was doing was helping another federal agency get rid of unwanted materials.

The two sides can't agree on what to do about the more than 3,000 containers of flammable liquids, strong acids and bases. The standoff has drawn out the uncertainty over the risk to nearby residents. The whirlwind also ensnared Dickinson's friend, Mike Smith of Melbourne, who let him store the former military chemicals on his property, embroiling both men in the federal Superfund hazardous waste cleanup program.

"I haven't been charged with anything," Dickinson said. "It was all legal storage ... I want a jury trial but they won't accuse me of anything yet."

Both men fear the federal government will seize their property to pay to secure and haul off the chemicals, even though no samples prove any leaked into the ground. EPA estimates the cleanup costs at almost $700,000. Environmental officials have yet to draw soil samples but initially described some resins and possibly other unknown substances leaking onto the ground.

They say the situation has dragged on so long because they've tried to work with Dickinson and Smith to sell or dispose of the chemicals, but that the two men have been uncooperative. EPA wants the chemicals removed before anything dangerous spills. But Dickinson and Smith say the agency keeps vacillating on how to proceed and whether the chemicals are useable products or hazardous waste. The agency is dragging things out, they say, inflating cleanup costs, and leaving them lost in a sea of uncertain and expensive troubles.

"All they're doing is wasting money," Smith said.

Years in the making

The situation dates back to 2010, when state environmental investigators received a complaint of improper storage of tires and abandoned hazardous waste off nearby Dike Road.

For years, the government "loved" him, Dickinson says. He rid the military of surplus hazardous materials. He would buy them from the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency. DLA would sell chemicals that the Department of Defense or other government agencies, such as NASA, could no longer use. Most of the chemicals he still has were from Patrick Air Force Base, bought between 1987 and 1997, Dickinson says.

Often, the chemicals were still useful, but past their expiration dates. But those found last year at the John Rodes Boulevard site were ones Dickinson had been unable to sell.

Dickinson says the problems started when owners of the Dike Road property, where he formerly stored his chemicals, wanted contamination by a previous occupant addressed. He says he's being scapegoated for the state and local government's negligent monitoring and enforcement of the previous occupant's activities.

According to a July 2010 complaint filed by a relative of that property owner, Dickinson had been leasing property at 293 Dike Road. The owners were worried cars, tires and other items at the site were code violations. Dickinson had fallen behind on the rent. The owner ultimately initiated eviction proceedings and hired a general contractor to remove the waste tires and scrap metal. The contractor found unlabeled drums. The soles of his shoes melted when he entered one of the trailers, according to the complaint.

State environmental inspectors found so many chemical containers and drums at the site they decided to call in the EPA.

Before the agency could take action, though, the trailers disappeared. Dickinson says he moved them because he was being evicted, not because he was trying to hide them.

Although state environmental inspectors had heard some of the same chemical-filled trailers wound up off John Rodes Boulevard, DEP closed its case in March 2011, citing lack of evidence or cooperation from Dickinson.

Smith said he allowed Dickinson's materials on his property as a favor and was told the items were car parts, scrap metal and other non-hazardous materials.

After a Brevard County environmental inspector brought the site to DEP's attention early last year, the agency again eventually called in EPA. But more than a year after the federal agency's emergency response on July 11, 2012, the chemicals remain on site.

The military cleaned up the nearby Dike Road site last summer after potassium hydroxide containers - whose owner was unknown - traced back to the Navy. But the military has not taken responsibility for Dickinson's chemicals on John Rodes.

At the time of the cleanup on Dike Road, the chemicals appeared abandoned, the owner was unknown and there was a reasonable belief they had been sold through the military, said Ken MacNevin, a spokesman for DLA Disposition Services.

"At the John Rodes Blvd. site the situation was different," MacNevin said via email. "The chemicals discovered at the site were not abandoned but purposely stored at that location, the land owner was aware that the chemicals were stored at that location and the owner of the chemicals is known."

DLA records show the chemicals "were sold for reuse in their original unopened containers to a buyer who appeared to be responsible. The chemicals were considered hazardous material when sold, not hazardous waste," MacNevin said.

But the military may not be completely off the hook for the cleanup costs.

"Our net is very wide on seeking recovery of our removal costs associated with the hazardous substances," said Chris Russell, EPA's emergency response and removal branch.

EPA wants written authorization from Dickinson and Smith to access the site again to remove the chemicals.

But the two men say they fear what the cleanup bill will be from EPA if they allow access. If they don't allow it, EPA could seek a court order. The two men also could face legal action to recover the cleanup costs.

"We do have the authority to place liens on properties for outstanding costs," said Stephen Smith, an EPA attorney in Atlanta involved with the situation.

Costs have already mounted to upwards of $100,000. In July of last year, EPA responders put a chain-link and barbed-wire fence around the trailers.

EPA officials have said the cleanup would be very labor intensive, but have been noncommittal about the amount or about explaining the costs as the situation plays out legally.

In all, EPA estimates a $408,000 cleanup, plus another almost $300,000 in internal costs to the agency.

Dickinson and Smith have told EPA officials they could not afford the cost of securing and removing the chemicals.

EPA took action, anyway.

Last August, workers in protective yellow suits, gloves and goggles secured containers from seven trailers and two box trucks. That included pouring hundreds of containers of chemicals into the larger new ones and fencing in the area.

Dickinson and Smith argue that EPA made the site less safe, by pouring some 270 two-gallon plastic bottles of potassium hydroxide, a caustic cleansing agent, also called potash lye, into large, 250-gallon plastic containers. So now, one puncture in one of those containers could release a much greater volume than the bottles would have, they say.

The large containers have been sitting there for a year.

"It's deteriorating already," Dickinson said.

Russell, of the EPA, said consolidating chemicals in the large containers to secure them for removal is standard protocol and was necessary because the smaller containers were brittle.

Elaborate graffiti on some of the trailers left evidence that trespassers had come close to the chemicals.

Initial screening at the site found 827 of the 3,496 containers had unknown contents. Labels on some of the chemicals trace them back to the Navy, and some of the substances may be more than 20 years old. Potassium hydroxide was among the main chemicals found.

Among the waste was 20 drums of a chemical used as high-power fuel, and in pesticides and medicines.

It's uncertain what, if anything, seeped into the soil or groundwater. Environmental officials initially described holes in the trailers and small amounts of resin on the ground. State environmental investigators said some of the chemicals may have seeped underneath the trailers but the agency has no samples yet to prove that.

EPA officials have assured there is no risk to human health or safety, as long as people stay away.

A hurricane or other severe storm could change that. "That's part of our concern: that something could happen down there," Russell said.

"We would love for this issue to be resolved," he added. "It's our position that there are hazardous substances and potentially hazardous substances on site. There's concern that individuals may be trying to get in there and find themselves in a very dangerous situation with hazardous substances present."

But Dickinson, who in 1983 made a record-setting solo trip crossing of the Atlantic in a bathtub-size sailboat, vows to display a similar grit in his battle with the feds.

"We'll fight it all the way to the Supreme Court," he said.

What they found

Here are some of the chemicals found at 1080 John Rodes Blvd., West Melbourne:

  • 90 quart containers of Flexform coating compound (epoxy) 
  • 270 2-gallon containers of potassium hydroxide 
  • 15 1-quart containers of polyamide (used in automotives, textiles and carpet) 
  • 154 1-pint containers of lube oil 
  • 100 1-pint containers of resin 
  • 414 lube oil containers contained in 23 boxes (18 containers per box)
  • 64 drums of two-part epoxy adhesive 
  • 20 drums of exo-tetrahydrocyclopentadiene 
  • 150 aerosol cans of corrosion prevention cleaner 
  • 1,200 1-gallon containers of epoxy adhesive 

Source: July 13, 2012 letter from Tetra Tech, Summary of Emergency Response Activities; FLORIDA TODAY research

What is Superfund?

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly known as Superfund, was enacted by Congress on Dec. 11, 1980. 

  • Created a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries and broad federal authority to respond to releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances that may endanger public health or the environment. 
  • Established prohibitions and requirements concerning closed and abandoned hazardous waste sites. 
  • Provided for liability of persons responsible for releases of hazardous waste at these sites. 
  • Established a trust fund to provide for cleanup when no responsible party could be identified. 

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Read about EPA's cleanup of the Dickinson site here: http://epaosc.org/site/site_profile.aspx?site_id=8001

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