Company, EPA lapses lead to hazards on the Eleven Point River

Coastal Energy’s set of tanks overlook the dry headwaters of the Eleven Point River on April 13, 2014. The tanks have drawn the ire of some residents because of their proximity to the river. Photo by Jack Suntrup

By Jack Suntrup

WILLOW SPRINGS, Mo. — Signs of industry were everywhere: the hulking petroleum tanks, the steam, the barbed wire—all next to the Eleven Point River in the Ozarks of southern Missouri.

Coastal Energy Corp., which sells asphalt and other chemicals for road maintenance and building waterproofing, has operated at the river’s headwaters since 2002, without much controversy. That is until this winter when Tom Kruzen, a local environmental activist, heard news of a disastrous chemical spill in Charleston, W.Va. that fouled the drinking water of 300,000 people.

Kruzen called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to complain. He feared any spill could taint delicate underground water supplies and ruin a valued Ozark stream, of which the federal government protects a 44-mile stretch. What followed was a lesson in the pitfalls of bureaucracy.

Coastal Energy president David Montgomery claimed in the company’s December 2009 Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure plan that the company posed no substantial harm to the environment.

This was despite the company having a nearly 2.8 million gallon capacity to store ethanol, liquid asphalt, diesel fuel and other chemicals just 200 feet from the headwaters of the Eleven Point, which at that point is a so-called “losing stream.” Rainfall filters down through a dolomite bedrock known as karst and into underground water supplies.

Parts of a 40-acre field around the facility show signs of sinkholes, according to a 2011 geohydrologic evaluation from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Representatives from Coastal Energy and Great Rivers Engineering, Inc., which drafted the SPCC plan, did not return multiple requests for comment.

Four years have passed since the company drafted its spill prevention plan, also known as an SPCC. Kruzen called to complain this winter. EPA inspectors arrived in February and tallied up a list of threats to the environment, essentially reversing Coastal Energy’s claim.

The EPA found that employees at the facility haven’t been properly trained to manage spills, tank inspection records lack substance, and the earthen barrier that is supposed to block chemicals from entering the river has gaps and is smaller than what the company claimed.

The company was also automatically pumping stormwater onto an adjacent field without first inspecting the water for contamination, the EPA found.

“I’m a little in freakout mode,” Kruzen said. “All it would take is a few rivets to pop, an accidental train derailment to happen there, or some other mishap. We certainly know of such incidents these days.”

Lack of inspections could be widespread

Why did it take the EPA four years to vet Coastal Energy’s claim that they posed no substantial harm to the environment?

Companies that store large amounts of petroleum must draft spill prevention plans to minimize damage from oil spills, but companies don’t have to submit their plans to the EPA.

In those plans, company representatives can self-report that they pose substantial harm to the environment.

The Government Accountability Office, a non-partisan watchdog agency of the U.S. Congress, authored a report on SPCC rules in 2008 at the request of Sens. Barbara Boxer and Arlen Specter.

If a company reports they do not pose substantial harm to the environment, the only way to reverse that claim is through an EPA inspection, but those are few and far between, the report found.

From 2004 to 2006, the EPA inspected less than 1 percent of the 571,000 estimated facilities nationwide subject to the SPCC rule, the GAO found.

Because these facilities don’t have to report to the EPA, inspectors have to find the facilities themselves through spill data, state records and Internet searches, the GAO found. This leaves the EPA in the dark.

The GAO report also surveyed six states, including Missouri, which regulated aboveground storage tanks. Of the six states, Missouri was the only one that didn’t require registration of aboveground tanks, according to the report.

As of publication, officials with the Missouri Department of Agriculture, which regulates aboveground tanks, have not said whether tank registration is now required in Missouri.

The GAO report stated that having required registration could make targeting problem facilities easier.

The dangers of karst

Kruzen cruised down the state highways surrounding Willow Springs noticing things other people wouldn’t.

“That’s a sinkhole,” he said, pointing out his window to a pond. Seconds later he pointed to the other side of the road to a subtle, forested depression. “That’s a sinkhole.”

Because the land near the Coastal Energy facility is highly permeable and has parts prone to sinkholes, some people are worried that a spill would not just be confined to the Eleven Point and would infiltrate underground water wells.

In fact, the city of Willow Springs doesn’t pump its water from the Eleven Point River, but rather has seven underground wells that quench the city’s thirst.

If petroleum seeped into the ground near the river, the seepage could contaminate underground water supplies across the region, said Tom Aley, a hydrogeologist and co-owner of The Ozark Underground Laboratory.

Ozark Underground has been in operation since 1973. In that time, Aley has published dozens of studies on karst and underground water supplies.

He said the impact of major seepage could last longer than when millions of gallons of sewage in West Plains were swallowed by a sinkhole in 1978. The sewage contaminated local water after bacteria reached underground supplies.

“Bacteria have a lifespan. There would be longer term effects with petroleum,” said Aley, who witnessed the West Plains mess. “The impact depends very much on the nature of the contaminant.”

Kruzen is worried that if the ground collapsed under the weight of the facility, chemicals would easily trickle down to the area’s water supply.

“If the ground is shaky, if there’s a cave under there, nobody knows,” Kruzen said.

It was unclear at the time of publication whether the Missouri Department of Agriculture requires geologic testing before tank construction or if the agency has a geologic or hydrologic study for the facility.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources doesn’t have a geologic evaluation for the facility on file and only regulates underground storage tanks, said Gena Terlizzi, a DNR spokeswoman.

DNR did survey a 40-acre field adjacent to the Coastal Energy facility in October 2011. The survey found active sinkhole formation on the southern half of the property and highly permeable land on the northern portion, next to the facility.

Coastal Energy pumps stormwater onto that field. The company is supposed to inspect the stormwater first to make sure it doesn’t contain contaminants, but the EPA inspection found that water is pumped automatically.

The geologic survey cautions against that practice and notes the vulnerability of the region’s water, stating, “If treatment of the waste should fail, the effluent could impact the regional water supply.”

Questions are left unanswered

Why didn’t the company self-report that they did pose substantial harm to the environment in 2009?

What is known is that if the company self-reported that they did pose substantial harm, more regulations could’ve been triggered.

Facility Response Plan is one of the possible regulations. The rule only applies to about 1 percent of SPCC facilities nationwide, according to the GAO report, and requires having resources to remove contamination, more specific safety information, and having unannounced drills.

The plan would also have to be changed every time company officials made significant changes at the facility.

There have been significant changes at Coastal Energy since its 2009 SPCC plan, the EPA inspection found.

The company built six new 30,000-gallon liquid asphalt tanks and added four additional tanks which store diesel fuel and fusel, an oily mixture.

Two tanks described in SPCC plans aren’t on the property, bringing the facility’s total to 37 tanks, up from 29 four years ago, according to the EPA inspection.

Kruzens take action

A heavy tarlike smell seeps through cars going past the facility on U.S. 60. People have started to notice the company. Kruzen, 67, said that he is organizing the Scenic Rivers Stream Team Association against the facility, as well as warning nearby towns about what he sees as at-risk water supplies.

Kruzen and his wife, Angel, 58, are seasoned environmental activists. When the Doe Run Company was spewing lead particles onto the streets of Herculaneum, Mo. in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the couple played a large role in lobbying for fines against the company.

In the early 2000s, when workers at wood chip mills were clear-cutting parts of the Mark Twain National Forest, the Kruzens helped organize residents and the traditional timber industry against the companies.

“We got them to close up shop,” Tom Kruzen said. “Most people didn’t want their land ravaged by chip mills.”

The Kruzens raised their kids “off-the-grid” in the Greenwood Forest Association, an expanse of nearby woods where a collective group of landowners live. The land didn’t have electricity until recently, Kruzen said.

“We were hardcore without running water or electricity,” he said.

When the couple read that Coastal Energy was pumping storm water onto a nearby field without inspecting it, they let out a collective sigh. It was time for another project.

“We’re going to push hard to close down the facility and have it moved,” Kruzen said. “I don’t know if that’s even possible.”

Kruzen ate up miles of the road with a comfortable speed. He wasn’t worried about missing his next turn because he knew every road. He turned off the main road and onto a gravel one. There was the rushing Jacks Fork River, its sound amplified by the limestone bluffs overhead.

Kruzen pulled up to the river and rolled down his window. He didn’t get out of the car; he doesn’t do much walking these days. His cane was in the backseat.

“It’s one of my favorite places,” he said. “I like to come down here in the winter just to listen to the water. It keeps me sane.”

He admits that his environmental stances aren’t always popular, especially in this area of rural Missouri. But Kruzen said the issue of water security transcends typical partisan lines. Everyone depends on the same water supply.

“We’re as safe as those walls are secure,” he said. “To me, that’s not enough.”

Links to document .pdfs

February 2014 EPA Inspection

Photos from EPA inspection

2009 SPCC Plan

2011 Geohydrologic Evaluation

 

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8 thoughts on “Company, EPA lapses lead to hazards on the Eleven Point River

  1. Tom is a long-time environmentalist who has every person’s health & safety in mind aside from the environment and all the beautiful surroundings we have here in the Ozarks. A disaster like this would change all that and nobody knows better than Tom. People are lulled into a false sense of security when an accident of this massive proportions hasn’t happened yet. They think it never will. Companies should never, ever be in charge of self-regulating, self- testing and self- reporting……….they just don’t do it. There has to be checks and balances with overseeing of the public safety. Our karst typography makes us extremely vulnerable to bacterial contamination of well-water since the caverns, caves and sink holes are widespread and water travels those pathways easily. Humans have a tendency to simply react to a catastrophic accident. We should know that this is something we cannot just wait around to have it happen…….and then try to fix it. That’s too late. Now is the time to act wisely and force these tanks to be relocated, regulated and reported on all over the state. Shining a light is just the first step.

    • I think it would be a shame for the city of Willow Springs to lose the Coastal Energy Plant and the numerous well paid employees who work there. Former farming communities like Willow Springs have had a tough go of it in recent decades. But some , including Willow Springs , have had some success in luring industry away from the industrial north. But alas it only takes a single well intentioned environmentalist to reverse all that. My hope is that rather than trying to destroy the community of Willow Springs by running off the little bit of industry that they do have, that the environmentalists would work to help the company develop a containment plan that would safeguard the beautiful eleven point river. My fear is that there actual agenda is as mr Kruzen states “we’re going to push hard to close down the facility, and have it moved” . This “not in my back yard” approach is how that plant ended up in rural Missouri in the first place. Obviously that’s not in the best interest of the residents of Willow Springs who are desperately trying to survive as a community.

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  3. With all due respect to Mr. Pettit, when we live in a highly developed karst area like we do in southern Missouri, we ALL live in each other’s back yard. We all drink from the same water supply and that underground water also supplies the springs and rivers in the region. They are totally interconnected.
    Should there be an accident, derailment or tank failure at Coastal Energy, all of the water from willow Springs to Van Buren to the Arkansas border could be contaminated. A 2011 preliminary report by state geologist Chis Vierrether said as much. The eleven Point River at Willow is a losing stream and was dye traced in 1972 by hydrologist Tom Aley. The dye was put into the Eleven Point about 1/2 mile downstream from the Coastal site and came out at Greer Spring! The Coastal property is surrounded by sinkholes and they illegally pump their surface water into an adjacent 40 acres field of sinkholes. In 1978 nine miles up Rt 63 37 acres of sewage went down two sinkholes in 24 hours. Despite all these warnings and history, the owners of Coastal went ahead anyway to build and expand their facility. The ultimate responsibility for any future damage caused by that facility falls on its owners, the Montgomerys and on the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and Depart of Agriculture who apparently permitted this accident in waiting WITHOUT considering any of the consequences. Should an accident befall Coastal, and contamination occur, I am sure Coastal would file for bankruptcy just like the company in West Virginia did when they contaminated the drinking water for 300,000 people in Charleston. Freedom Industries tank leaked into the Fox River and the next day they filed for bankruptcy! This is always an easy out for corporate criminals. Any damage to our tourist and agricultural industries could be devastating and Coastal would NOT be responsible. Peoples’ wells could also be contaminated and there is no physical way to clean up contaminated karst. Sewage can be boiled to make it safe but the products Coastal stores are petroleum-based and highly toxic. Will they supply everyone in Southern Missouri drinking water for the next 100 years??? Mr. Pettit says the “not in my back yard attitude is just how Coastal ended up in rural Missouri in the first place” Does he know something we do not??? Did Coastal have a history of problems in some other place???
    No one is trying to destroy the economy of Willow Springs. I’m sure people in Willow and the surrounding area could find some light industry like Mt. View has -assembly work that does not use great amount s of toxic chemicals or large amounts of water.

    The current situation is untenable and it will only be a matter of time before an accident occurs. 2.8 million gallons of chemicals cannot be contained if a sinkhole collapses under the tanks or a train derails and destroys the tanks.This should have been all thought about BEFORE this facility was built!!!

    • I understand the interconnected nature of Karst but I also understand the interconnected nature of the local economy. You cannot replace 300 $80,000 a year petroleum industry jobs with 0 $20,000 a year light manufacturing jobs without a serious adverse effect on the community of Willow Springs. This is not a nightmare fantasy scenario of giant collapsing sinkholes but reality. Unless you live completely off the grid you are dependent on those jobs as everyone who works for coastal. Or you simply don’t live near Willow. Closing the plant would be a tragedy not only for their employees and their families but for thousands more in the community. The readers should be aware that while the underlying bedrock is permeable and karst, the valley is filled with impermeable clay which would contain any spill.

  4. NO ONE is asking that Coastal be put out of business. If Coastal were to move to Cabool or Mt. Grove, the people in Willow Springs could still have their jobs and just a little longer commute. As I count the employees on Coastal’s website, they number 8, including the owners, not 300! This is NOT a nightmare fantasy. The West Plains Sewage Lagoon actually happened in 1978 and there have been recent sinkhole collapses all throughout the Ozarks. Have any dye tracings been performed in the field that Coastal spreads its surface runoff. Does that water sheet off the clay at any point into the bedrock? In any case it is against the law for Coastal to automatically spread this surface waste without first inspecting it. Their automatic sump pump system precludes that. Trust Coastal? They lied about building extra tanks. They lied about their facility having a possible impact on streams and stream life. will they guarantee everyone affected by a possible accidental spill from their facility clean drinking water. What about the livelihoods of the thousands of people here who depend on tourism and agriculture? Will the Montgomerys pay them for their lost employment? Do they want to be known as the people who ruined Missouri’s National Scenic and Wild and Scenic Rivers???

  5. Obviously moving the plant to mountain grove or anywhere else on the Ozark Plateau would simply annoy the local environmentalists there. The bedrock is karst throughout the plateau. If the plant were to leave Willow it would likely be located in the Loess hills of northern Missouri. The cost would be in the tens of millions of dollars and would kill the company and the jobs. Obviously only the corporate officers are listed on the website. With all due respect what you are proposing is the collapse of the community of Willow Springs. The idea of a huge sinkhole opening up under the tank farm or a train on the siding derailing ( they go 5mph on that siding) and destroying a tank is absolute fantasy. The pumping of uninspected water into their field must stop . It must be inspected I’m with you on that. But the contribution of the employees of Coastal to the community certainly outweigh the contribution of fear and fantasy of a single self proclaimed untrained “environmentalist”

  6. Mr. Pettit is the one living in a fantasy world. Only a few miles up the road toward West Plains two huge sinkholes opened up in 1978 and drained 37 acres of sewage in 24 hours! Fact! History! A noted hydrologist, Tom Aley dye traced the Eleven Point only 1/2 mile downstream from the Coastal site in 1972 and it came out at Greer Spring-40 miles away! Fact!
    Aley also confided in me that he didn’t think the people at Coastal or in the government tested the ground beneath the facility before it was was built so NO ONE knows what is under there. A test bore should have been done. If or when an accident occurs at Coastal, it would not only destroy the drinking water of Willow Springs but quite possibly everyone’s water from Willow to Van Buren. The destruction of the regional water supply would truly be a disaster for thousands, not just Willow. Neither Mr. Pettit nor the people at Coastal understand the basics of karst topography. Mr. Pettit also fails to realize that in the event of a rupture of any of those tanks, only yards away from the Eleven Point, the toxic contents would end up in the River and the underlying karst in a matter of minutes. No one could respond fast enough to do any good. The EPA inspection report summary states;” the facility meets the substantial harm criteria with regard to threat to fish, wildlife and sensitive environments.”
    “Environs”=old French for “one’s surroundings, one’s home”. Mr Pettit would rather disparage me than understand that an environmentalist is only defending his or her home. Karst makes this whole region our home! It is sad that Mr. Pettit would rather defend a misplaced and corrupt corporation and the mindless decisions to put it in Willow Springs than to show concern for an entire regions health and well-being.

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