MOBILE, Ala. (AP) -- Residents in a south Mobile neighborhood were relieved this week when dump trucks starting rolling in and out of an abandoned bumper plant. It was a sign that a hazardous chemical threat will soon be removed.
The trucks were clearing initial debris in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's $1 million cleanup of a 7-acre plant site that contains hazardous materials, including cyanide, nickel solution, sodium hydroxide, chromic acid and other unknown materials.
Michael Sparks, EPA's on-scene coordinator, said Thursday he could "only imagine" what it must have been like for the workers in the former Mobile American Bumper Plating plant, which is surrounded by many small homes close together on busy residential streets.
The former electroplating plant had operated for 40 years near the Interstate 10 overpass on Navco Road. The chemical wastes were abandoned in 85 barrels and 18 vats in a long, shed-like metal building that has to be demolished.
Sparks said evaporation from the acid solutions used in the plant had turned the building's girders into "Swiss cheese."
"The roof is gone," he said.
The cleanup had been urged by residents.
The bumper plant filed for bankruptcy in 1990, and the name changed. Community organizer Donna Brown said the business finally closed after Hurricane Ivan damage in 2004 and never reopened.
"I knew a couple of guys who worked there," said Vincent Watt, who lives across the street from the plant. "My 11-year-old son said, 'Dad, you don't know what we've been breathing in. It could be poison."
Watt said he has seen children run through the storm water runoff from the plant. EPA says many of the drums, vats and containers, now secured, had been stored in the open, exposed to the weather.
Bobbie Black, 76, a 40-year resident in a house across from the plant, said she suspects the chemicals have been "settling and seeping" for years.
"It's bound to be in this dirt," Black said. "I didn't know all that was over there. I had no idea barrels full of contaminated liquid were there until all this started."
EPA says soil tests did not show any need to remove pollutants from any property surrounding the plant. Those findings were announced at a community meeting earlier this year.
Diane Bourassa, who can see the plant across her backyard fence, contends her property was contaminated by the plant chemicals.
But Bourassa received a written notice in April from EPA saying soils on her property were tested for chromium, cyanide and other metals but were found to be below "risk-based concentrations" set by EPA in determining whether a property required a cleanup.
Bourassa still blames chemical pollution from the plant for the deaths of more than a few of her cats and dogs.
"I've been trying for years go get something done," she said in an interview at her home. "I've lived here since 1971. Probably five or six years after I moved in, my animals started dying."
EPA got involved after a community group urged the city into action. Vagrants had moved into the building, starting fires for warmth and melting electrical wiring to extract copper.
Sparks said the building was stripped of anything valuable, leaving only the chemical threat.
He said the cleanup could be completed in about eight months, allowing the site's safe reuse.
He said the dump trucks drawing the neighbors' attention this week were hauling out debris before the hazardous waste could be removed.
"We're not transporting any hazardous materials right now," he said.
Brown, the community organizer, said she would like to see a nursery or farmers market on the site once it's cleaned up.
"An industrial-type business would be fine," Brown said, as long as it's not like the bumper operation.
Sparks said the bumper plant's current owner is known to EPA but he declined to identify the owner because of privacy rules. Property records show taxes being paid by Taylor Investment LLC.
"No one's been accused of anything," he said.
But the property owner will be pursued for payment of the EPA cleanup, he said.