Arsenic and Old Lakes

by Allison Seale

The old saying, "What you don't know can't hurt you" and its successor, "If you ignore it long enough, the problem will go away," are two fallacies that are coming back to haunt us in the Brazos Valley.

Years ago, before the days when Big Brother was looking out for us, industry operated without the numerous health and safety regulations that businesses deal with today. Such was the case for Cotton Poisons, Inc. a company that produced an arsenic based cotton defoliant in the late thirties and early forties near downtown Bryan.

In the old days, trains carrying arsenic would unload on the tracks bordering the east side of the plant, which is located on the corner of Carson and Fountain streets. The arsenic would then be moved into the plant by a conveyor system and the empty railroad cars would be washed out. Storm water run-off from the plant area, and wastewater from the plant, as well as any spillage and wash-down water, flowed into a system of two unlined retention ponds which functioned to trap the majority of the arsenic solids prior to discharging the remaining solution to Finfeather Lake.

What is significant about the fact that these ponds were unlined is they were dug beneath the ground water level which allowed seepage into the upper aquifer. At the time, there was no agency regulating such ponds. (CAREFUL)

In 1969, the Texas Water Quality Board District Office (subsequently the Texas Department of Water Resources) inspected the plant, which had been purchased in the forties by the Pennsylvania Salt Manufacturing Company and had under gone two name changes to become the Pennwalt Corporation, and found the concentration of arsenic in Finfeather Lake to be approximately 10 mg/l. This was the year before the Environmental Protection Agency was established and some five years the EPA set recommendations on levels of toxic chemicals in water. The level of arsenic in Finfeather Lake, it would later be learned, was roughly 50 times higher than the EPA's maximum for dissolved arsenic concentration in water. Still, the TWQB issued a permit to Pennwalt, in 1970, requiring that all wastewater, including contaminated storm water runoff, be contained within two retention ponds on the plant site. Unfortunately, technology or common sense did not require, at the time, for these ponds to be lined.

What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

In 1976, Pennwalt was required by the TWQB and the Attorney General's Office to eliminate and close the retention pond and earthen sump which stored arsenic sludge and wastewaters, provide a wastewater recycle system, stop discharge or seepage of arsenic contaminated sediments exceeding 10 mg/kg arsenic from Finfeather and Municipal Lakes, dispose of arsenic-laden sediments in a landfill to be constructed on the plant site, drain Municipal and Finfeather Lakes, and to prevent drainage and runoff waters from entering the lakes. By 1980, Pennwalt had accomplished the task of removing the arsenic-contaminated sediments from Finfeather Lake and Municipal Lakes. In 1981, the Texas Water Commission allowed Pennwalt to refill the lakes, but required that they monitor the pH and arsenic concentrations in them for 10 years and to monitor the arsenic and pH of the ground water around the disposal site for as long as Pennwalt owned the property. Furthermore, they were required to remediate any ground waters found to be significantly contaminated. Refilling of the lakes took place in 1983.

In 1989, the TWC initiated a study of Finfeather and Bryan Municipal Lakes under the TWC Stream Monitoring Program. The ongoing study revealed surface water in Finfeather Lake had arsenic at levels as much as 26 times the EPA's maximum concentration limit for arsenic in drinking water, while Municipal Lake showed concentrations 12 times higher. Arsenic levels in sediments taken from Finfeather and Municipal Lakes were as high as 680 mg/kg and 210 mg/kg, respectively. These levels are as much as 68 times the maximum level (10 mg/kg) originally called for in 1981, in the case of Finfeather lake, and 21 times the maximum level for Municipal Lake.

In addition to the recurring problems associated with ground water contamination, the Texas Air Control Board identified several areas in and around the Pennwalt property where surficial soils needed to be cleaned or replaced. It also required the company to pave portions of the facility to prevent the potential for air contamination from vehicles kicking up dirt while leaving the plant. But before they could pave the area, six inches of road bed had to be removed. By July of 1989, the soil was removed and placed in a pile behind the plant and paving of the facility was begun.

In the fall of 1989, Atochem North America, the chemical arm of the French national oil company and (now, Elf Atochem), inherited the arsenic headache when it purchased the plant from the Pennwalt Corporation for better and for worse.

Don’t Ignore It and It Still Won’t Go Away

Theoretically, the plant is ideally located. The herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and cotton defoliants have a ready-made market in the fertile farmlands of the Brazos Valley. The company employs more than 60 and as many as 90 residents, depending on seasonal demand for the agricultural products produced by the plant, and it achieved sales in excess of $30 million last year, according to Arthur Chernosky, Elf Atochem manufacturing and plant manager.

The arsenic-related products are used in a variety of industrial and agricultural applications, including as cotton defoliants, in glass manufacturing, and in veterinary medicine. In addition, arsenic acid is used in poultry feed additives and for wood preservatives.

For worse, the plant takes on the responsibility of dealing with the disposal of arsenic wastes produced at the plant now and trying to eradicate the damage done by haphazard, though acceptable at the time, arsenic waste disposal done in the past.

The TWC wanted to know why, with a wastewater recycling system in place and after the lakes were drained and the arsenic laden sediments removed and placed in a landfill, the lakes and associated tributaries leading from the plant to the lakes have continued to show high levels of arsenic?

Pennwalt contended, as does Atochem, that the lakes and tributaries are being contaminated as a result of past practices, not present. More specifically, they point to ground water contamination under the plant as the primary contributor of arsenic to the waterways.

"The two retention ponds that were dug behind the facility were dug deep enough that they went into the upper aquifer," Arthur Chernosky, manufacturing and plant manager for Atochem and formerly for Pennwalt, said. "It (arsenic) seeped into ground water."

That's what the TWC wants to know and that is why it made a recommendation last month calling for a $10 million administrative fine to be assessed to Elf Atochem (the company that purchased Pennwalt in the fall of 1989).

But as modern science exposed the errors of our past herbicides and pesticides and cotton defoliates have been produced in a plant that sits on the corner of Fountain and Carson streets in Bryan. Arsenic, a potentially deadly chemical, is one of the primary components In the thirties, When Cotton Poisons, Inc. began operations, and, subsequently, the Pennsylvania Salt Manufacturing Company, herbicides and pesticides were produced without the Arsenic. It's odorless and tasteless and has a nefarious history as a favored homicidal agent. Ingested in high enough concentrations, it is fatal. Consistent exposure to smaller doses can produce an array of symptoms such as Black Foot's disease, a gangrenous condition of the hands and feet; diarrhea, loss of appetite, abdominal pains, numbness in the extremities and anemia.

Soil at Atochem's facility became contaminated with arsenic as a result of historical solid waste management practices at the facility. Migration of the arsenic occurred through the soils at the facility to a series of shallow aquifers.

Download a PDF copy of this article.