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Officials: After Merck demolished, environmental issues will remain

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

ALBANY, Ga. -- After four years of trying to sell its Albany plant, Merck & Co. officials say they will demolish the facilities on Radium Springs Road, restoring it to the green space it was prior to the plant's construction nearly 60 years ago.

But state and federal officials say that Merck's challenge to restore the land where it was before it started production in 1952 will continue long after the walls come down, as investigations and environmental cleanup efforts continue on the 1,000-acre site in southern Dougherty County.

Following inquiries by The Albany Herald, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state's Environmental Protection Division of the Department of Natural Resources (EPD) have released information relating to the Merck facility site at 3517 Radium Springs Road.

According to those two agencies and Merck officials, the former chemical manufacturer is currently remediating contaminated soil and groundwater on the Merck site that was exposed to various chemicals over the company's history.

"During its many years of operation, Merck has had releases to the environment that have impacted soils and groundwater (the main constituents are toluene and methylene chloride). The investigation and some remediation that was required by the permit was ongoing prior to the facility's decision to close, and will continue after demolition," EPD Communications Director Kevin Chambers wrote in an e-mail to the Herald.

Toluene and methylene chloride -- which is more commonly referred to as Dichloromethane or DCM -- are both widely used as chemical solvents.

Chambers said Friday that a series of monitoring wells located around the facility suggest that no significant contamination exists outside of the Merck facility itself. The wells are checked annually.

Connie Wickersham, who works for Merck & Co.'s Global Communication's office, said Friday that Merck is committed to following current remediation plans even after the demolition is complete.

"We tried to sell it and had no luck so Merck has decided to demolish the facility and are committed to following through with current remediation schedule," Wickersham said.

Chambers said that Merck must follow certain steps when closing a plant to adhere to the company's hazardous waste permit granted by the EPD.

"As a part of plant closure, the facility is required to close the permitted units following an EPD-approved closure plan. The plan requires that, prior to demolition, the facility decontaminate the storage areas and associated structures, and take confirmation samples documenting decontamination. Additionally, the plan requires investigation of soils and groundwater for contamination in those areas. The facility is required to conduct corrective action if soil or groundwater contamination is found. They have begun closure.

"They have completed 'clean' (documenting decontamination) closure of the container storage areas, and approximately 80 percent of their tanks closure requirements are complete," he wrote.

The 700,000 square-foot facility started production in 1952 and provided jobs for area residents until it closed in 2007.

Dougherty County Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard said that the plant's closure was a blow to Dougherty County's economic development landscape and one that is still being felt today.

"They provided a lot of jobs for the people of Dougherty County for 60 plus years and we all know how vital jobs are today," Sinyard said.

"Our hopes were that they'd be able to sell the property and that a new tenant could move-in and that some of those jobs would come back. It's sad that they weren't."

According to documents provided by the EPA, Merck largely produced or housed chemicals typically used as solvents or cleaners.

In addition to toluene and DCM, Merck had onsite chemicals ranging from ammonia and hydrosulfuric acid to methanol and ethlyne glycol -- a key component to antifreeze.

While they don't clearly state how much of any given chemical was discharged into the local ecosystem, 504,608 pounds of permitted treated chemicals were released through surface water discharges between when the plant closed in 2007 and 2001 -- the last year provided by the EPA.

Another 269,109 pounds were discharged into the air over that time period, according to the same report filed by the EPA, with 228 pounds released to land.

In total, more than 773,900 pounds of discharges were made on-site, according to the report.

Chambers said that Merck is currently in the process of remediating any groundwater contamination on-site and will begin remediation of any soil contamination in the near future.

"Treatment includes extraction of contaminated groundwater, followed by treatment to remove the hazardous constituents and discharge to the Flint River after treatment. This groundwater remediation technology has been ongoing since the mid-2000's.

Additionally, to enhance and expedite that remediation, the facility also did bio-sparging (the addition of oxygen to provide energy for the bio-breakdown of toluene) for approximately 3 years, until it had reached its remedial limitations.

"The facility has been testing the applicability of chemical in-situ treatment (injection of reagent that breakdown the contaminants) in the soils, and is expected to begin soil remediation in the near future," Chambers said.