Toxic Fear, from Phil Humbert

October 4, 2007 |

Is Your Town Toxic?
Wednesday October 3, 8:08 am ET By Maya Roney

Falling home prices may not be the only thing poisoning your neighborhood. Landfills, abandoned manufacturing plants, and leaking underground petroleum tanks sometimes lurk in the backyards of unsuspecting homeowners and home buyers, leading to serious health issues and spoiled real estate markets.

I work on similar environmental projects and a lot of these sites have been known and documented for years — it is really nothing new. Is the negative tone (and the "worst case" scenarios presented) designed to further strike fear into the potential real estate buyer? Why is it necessary to give a top 10 list of contaminated cities?
Most large real estate investors today still conduct a Phase I (initial environmental screening) and perform due diligence before buying a piece of property so that they do not unknowingly inherit or become partially liable for cleanup costs on a solvent or petroleum-"impacted" (contamination is a word that is avoided these days) property. EDR has been producing radius searches for 10 plus years — local and state agencies often keep databases that can give more information on particular sites.
Perhaps small home buyers are unaware and do not consider these things? Actually, even in Florida there are a few homes that have been built over small landfills from the 20s and 30s.
As far as public health goes, one of the main concerns is whether vapors from a plume of the constituents of concern (gasoline, solvents, volatile chemicals) are making it from the groundwater table to the surface — thus potentially becoming an exposure risk to the homeowner. Unless it is a very large plume and the concentrations are very high and the groundwater table is very shallow the chances of an exposure pathway being present are low. A risk assessment can be done to determine if their is a danger.
Often the push for cleanup in Florida is a function of the threat to the municipal wellfield or future water supplies — it is more of an economic reason rather than an environmental fear that plants or animals will be exposed to chemicals.
Jim McGNew Jersey was considered a very "contaminated" state because of the numerous sites it has, but another way of looking at it is that the state environmental agency has done a very good job of indentifying sites and enforcing stringent soil and groundwater cleanup levels.
An "underground lake" of gasoline, contaminants, etc.m sounds dramatic, but normally the contaminants are either floating on top of the groundwater table (gasoline is lighter than water) or sinking below the groundwater table (chlorinated solvents, heavier than water) and are found within an aquifer of water-bearing rock, sand, limestone, etc., so the image of a lake is not normally accurate (although you can get some cavernous porosity in limestone).
Also plumes do not normally extend ad infinitum. As concentrations decrease bacteria in the soil and groundwater begin to biodegrade the constiuents of concern. In some cases plants and trees can actually be used to accelerate the cleanup process (bioremediation) or compressed air can be injected into the aquifer through 2 or 4 inch diameter wells to strip (sparge) volatile compounds out of the groundwater and stimulate the bacteria.
There is a lot of science involved and many people unfortunately do not know where their water comes from or where their wastewater and trash go and how contaminated groundwater is assessed, treated, and cleaned. Without science and knowledge there is no way to accurately assess risk and you are at the mercy of the fearmongers.

James Lackey adds:

NashvilleNashville was mine central for phosphorous all the way back in to the 19th century. I saw the mines or, better stated, trenches and maps from the 50s on the Net. I called Sunbaked, the Spec geologist, and he warned me "ya never know" what could be backfilled in them. Of course we assume way back in the day all sorts of fun things were buried in the old trenches.

That wasnt my concern, foundation issues were. Bake said he would come out and take a look for me at any land that I wanted to purchase. I can't imagine what the cost would be for a guy like Bake and his firm to do a real geological study for, let's say, 100 acres.

I do see tracts of land for may reasons (not taxes or locale) that trade well under other tracts in the general Nashville area. I assume some of the open lands are old strip mines or near old factories and many DOD sites. I moved to a spot where there was "no doubt" yet I can't ever build a pool without TNT — bedrock two feet under my top soil.


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