The message was clear from representatives of Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, the Lord Fairfax Health District and engineers from Winchester-based Triad Engineering Inc. who met with approximately 35 residents of the Shepherds Mill Road area last night. Although four area wells have been contaminated by a gasoline leak from JJ Corner fuel tanks, officials are cautiously optimistic that most of the fuel has been recovered from groundwater and there is no immediate threat to public health.
Area residents, six government officials and two pollution cleanup contractors met for nearly two-and-a-half-hours last night to hear about a 14-month gasoline leak saga that has impacted wells in the vicinity of JJ Corner Store near the intersection of VA Route 7 and Shepherds Mill Road. Initial signs of a problem occurred in October 2010 when store owner James “Doodle” Shepherd learned that one of the gasoline tanks at his station had failed a pressure tightness test.
According to DEQ representatives, Shepherd immediately took steps to notify DEQ once the leak was suspected.
“The property owner was very proactive in this case” said Mac Sterrett.
R. McChesney “Mac” Sterrett, DEQ’s Petroleum Program manager, said that the ultimate source of the gasoline leak – which may have discharged as much as three hundred gallons of fuel into the ground – was a pinky-finger sized corrosion hole in the bottom of the 20-year-old gasoline storage tank.
Sterrett said that DEQ believes that the leak probably occurred for less than three months but added that there is no way to be sure of the exact quantity of gasoline spilled.
“DEQ learned about the problem on October 12, 2010” Sterrett said. “On October 27 soil borings and monitoring wells were installed around the store. On November 4th our consultants, Triad Engineering, found gasoline in the groundwater.”
David Forrer, DEQ’s Petroleum Remediation Team Leader who has managed the cleanup effort, said that nine water wells around the store have been tested. Four of the tested wells showed traces of petroleum products in the water.
According to Forrer, the contaminated wells had levels well below the federal Environmental Protection Agency standard for safe drinking water.
“One of the wells showed a contamination level of just 1.2 parts per billion (ppb)” Sterrett said. “That level is very low and is just at the lowest level that can be detected in the laboratory.”
John Giese, DEQ’s Petroleum Programs Remediation manager, compared the 1.2 ppb statistic to a single ping pong ball in an Olympic-sized swimming pool filled with ping pong balls.
But even though detected contamination levels have so far been well below the levels considered unsafe by EPA, Sterrett emphasized DEQ’s “zero tolerance” policy for petroleum contamination has resulted in carbon filters being placed on each of the four wells to remove any gasoline hydrocarbons found in the well.
Lord Fairfax Health District Director Dr. Charles Devine said that an independent epidemiologist with his agency had reviewed all the data that DEQ has gathered about the contaminated wells. Based on that review, Devine said that he would not expect to see any health issues from the water once it had been filtered echoing statements in a letter sent to area residents by Clarke County government on November 7 assuring that the contamination problem poses no immediate health risks.
“You may have concerns as to whether it is safe to use your water, let your children play outside, work in your yard, and live in your home. The answer to all of these questions is, yes, it is safe” the letter stated. “The petroleum compounds in the groundwater pose no threat to you other than that which you might be exposed to from your well water, and DEQ will ensure that you are provided with a filtration system should your water prove to be contaminated by petroleum products.”
Both Forrer and Sterrett also addressed concerns expressed by several people at the meeting over the potential for the contaminated ground water to spread to other places. Forrer said that DEQ’s monitoring wells had confirmed that groundwater in the area was moving in a northeasterly direction. He also said that test wells placed on the west side of Shepherds Mill road has not detected any contamination making it unlikely that the spill would threaten wells in the Blue Ridge Estates subdivision.
Sterrett said that petroleum contamination seldom travels more that several hundred feet from the source further reducing the risk to additional area wells.
“The longest plume that I’ve ever seen was 1,700 feet which was huge” Sterrett said “and I’ve been doing this 38 years.”
However, one factor that neither DEQ nor EPA has much experience with is that 10 percent of the gasoline in the in the J.J. Corner Store spill is ethanol. Sterrett explained that while gasoline floats on the surface of water, ethanol allows petroleum contaminants to bind with water molecules. The presence of the ethanol content allows the spill to be carried further from the source.
Dr. Devine added that the ethanol associated with the JJ Corner Store spill is the same type of alcoholic contained in beverages like beer.
At last night’s meeting DEQ officials said that pumping operations from the monitoring wells and the tank site over the past year have been very successful in removing gasoline. But in an effort to remove even more of the hydrocarbon contamination, including the ethanol, DEQ’s cleanup contractor, Traid Engineering, has installed two large white plastic treatment tanks that are now treating the contaminated groundwater before releasing clean water back into the environment.
“The process that we are using now is treating about a half-gallon of water per minute” said Triad engineer Nick Wolf. DEQ said that it is impossible to calculate how much pollution remains underground but so far, 20,000 gallons of water have been processed through the treatment tanks
Citizen at last night’s meeting also expressed concerns about the long term movement groundwater contaminated by the spill. Sterrett, however, said pollution plumes generally don’t spread more than a few hundred feet from the source. Sterrett said that the farthest that he has seen a petroleum plume move n his 38 years of working on petroleum spills was 1,700 feet.
“That was huge. It blew us away,” he said.
DEQ’s Giese also affirmed that as the petroleum spills naturally spread and dilute, naturally occurring microorganisms in the soil begin to literally “eat” the hydrocarbons. But even with twelve monitoring wells beyond the store property having tested “clean”, DEQ is planning to install nine additional wells to the north and east of the site just to be safe.
Although some of the attendees at last night’s meeting also questioned J.J. Corner Store owner Doodle Shepherd’s responsibility in the spill, DEQ was steadfast in its position that Shepherd was not at fault.
“Mr. Shepherd was really proactive and did all of the right things” said Sterrett. “He did everything properly according to our regulations.”
Mr. Shepherd was not present at last night’s meeting.
When questioned about the cost of the cleanup DEQ’s director of Spill Response and Cleanup Elizabeth Lamp said that so far Shepherd’s out-of-pocket cost for the cleanup, not including costs associated with removal and replacement of the defective tanks, was about $5,600. The remainder of the cleanup cost, to a maximum of $1M, will be covered by DEQ.
“There is no penalty to Mr. Shepherd’s store because his tank leaked” Sterrett said. “The tank owner must pay the bills associated with the cleanup and can then apply to DEQ for reimbursement. Mr. Shepherd has paid a lot of money out of his pocket to get this work done.”
Although both Sterrett and Forrer said that they were unaware that J.J Corner Store was currently for sale, Sterrett said that Shepherd will continue to carry personal responsibility for cleanup costs that exceed $1m even if he were to sell the property unless the new owner was willing to accept the liability.
Sterrett said that he could not predict just how long cleanup operations would continue but the average time to cleanup a spill site is about three years.
Clarke County Supervisor David Weiss (Buckmarsh) was also present at last night’s meeting. Weiss said that he believed that DEQ had been forthright in their response to the spill and in answering citizen’s questions at last night’s meeting.
“I was pleased that so many residents came out tonight and I hope that everyone’s questions were answered satisfactorily” Weiss said. “I was glad to hear that DEQ is expanding its well testing beyond the store. I think that will go a long way to alleviate the worries of residents.”
But despite assurance that everything possible is being done to contain and mitigate the consequences of the spill, at least one resident who lives just north of the store said that he was concerned about the spill’s impact on his property values and said between the spill and blasting at a nearby quarry he felt like it was time to leave the area.
““Our well was just tested yesterday so we don’t know yet if were affected” said Willie Potter. “Either way I think that it’s time to call it quits here.”