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.
A 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.”
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