Panther Island / Central City | In The News

Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Chemicals polluted north Fort Worth for decades. Here’s what’s being done about it

Nearly 15 years after officials first evaluated soil and groundwater contamination in Fort Worth’s industrial north side, the cleanup effort for the Panther Island/Central City flood control project is entering its final stages, according to the Tarrant Regional Water District.

As part of the $1.17 billion effort to prevent river flooding and revitalize downtown Fort Worth, the water district has spent more than $43 million to clean about 137 acres contaminated with harmful chemicals, according to Woody Frossard, the water district’s environmental director.

The property must meet state environmental standards before the federal U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can move ahead with its plans to build a 1.5-mile bypass channel and reroute part of the Trinity River. Northern sections of Fort Worth were previously home to a petroleum refinery, two metal refineries and a metal reclamation facility that led to significant contamination before environmental laws were introduced in the 1970s, Frossard said.

“There were no environmental violations here, and this was just normal operations for entities who were here back in the day,” Frossard said. “Because of that contamination, the area that we’re in has not seen any growth or any potential for growth.”

At 21 sites slated for the Panther Island project, workers have removed more than 400,000 tons of contaminated soil and treated 44 million gallons of contaminated groundwater. With seven properties left to clean, Frossard called it the “largest single voluntary cleanup program in the state of Texas.”

“Because of the magnitude of the cleanup effort, I don’t think you would have ever seen the north side of Fort Worth cleaned up to the degree that you can have residential development occur ever again,” Frossard said. “Without the water district taking this on, there’s no other entity within the area that would have taken on over 400,000 tons of cleanup.”

In December, cleanup crews started remediation work at Fort Worth’s former police and fire training center on Calvert Street. For decades, trainees shot lead bullets at the firing range and practiced putting out fires using aqueous film forming foam, a popular fire suppressant containing perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS.

PFAS chemicals, which are found in many consumer products, are known as “forever chemicals” because they are highly persistent and accumulate in people’s bodies rather than breaking down, said Dr. Katherine Pelch, a professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth who studies PFAS and public health.

The Star-Telegram reported in July that a private well near Fort Worth’s Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base was contaminated with PFAS chemicals, likely stemming from the use of firefighting foam. The toxic chemicals have been discovered at military bases and communities across the United States, and scientists have connected exposure to high levels of PFAS with the development of certain cancers and decreased immune responses, Pelch said.

“PFAS are extremely persistent in the environment and also highly mobile,” she said. “If this is a site of great contamination due to the historic use of AFFF firefighting foam, then the site will remain environmentally contaminated with these PFAS, and they will continue to get into the waterway.”

Frossard was unsurprised to discover PFAS chemicals and high levels of lead at the training center. Cleanup workers tested for 35 chemicals in the PFAS family and identified two that were above the levels allowed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, he said, adding that the water district has contracted with a company that accepts PFAS materials and has a “site designed for these types of waste.”

The waste collection company, Republic Services, was initially hesitant to accept the PFAS-related waste because of upcoming Environmental Protection Agency regulations on how landfills handle the chemicals, Frossard said. But, in November, the company agreed to accept PFAS waste from the Panther City cleanup.

Pelch and others in the public health field have pushed for more stringent federal and state regulations on PFAS in drinking water. Many states are still awaiting more guidance from the EPA, Frossard said.

“The EPA calls it an emerging contaminant, and they don’t have standards for it yet because they don’t know enough about it to establish the standards,” he said. “I don’t blame the waste companies because they don’t currently have a federal standard to say ‘we’re in compliance with this.’”

Outside of PFAS, Frossard and his team have addressed three other categories of pollutants: heavy metals, volatile organic compounds that often contaminate groundwater, and byproducts from petroleum. The most difficult chemicals to clean are those that are most toxic to humans, including the large amounts of lead found at the training center, he said.

“It was at a high enough concentration that the crew had to put on air breathers and special clothing that you wear and then throw away,” Frossard said. “They have their blood levels checked for lead prior to doing the work and then once they’re through, they have to go back in and have blood tests again. It’s not hard to remediate, it’s just because of the level of toxicity and the diligence it requires.”

The structure at the training center has already been demolished, and Frossard hopes to have the remediation work done within the next six months. There is no hard deadline for the rest of the cleanup effort, which Frossard attributes to the amount of paperwork required to receive a certificate of completion from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the changing timelines that come with discovering new contamination at each site.

Once the lead and PFAS chemicals are cleared from the city’s former training center, about 90 percent of the property needed for the Panther Island Central City project will have been cleaned, according to the water district.

All of the cleanup work was completed to meet the state’s higher “residential” standard rather than the required “commercial” standard in the hopes of protecting public health and clearing the way for more development in Fort Worth, Frossard said.

“We made the river a cleaner river immediately and we removed the source of contamination that would have continued contaminating the river for decades into the future,” he said. “From a public standpoint, you’re seeing an area that is cleaned up, that allows diversity of development to come in, and that allows it to become a vital and vibrant area for future growth.”

Reported by Haley Samsel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on December 29, 2020

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