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EPA to Sandusky: Expand coal tar drilling

Jason Singer • Jun 17, 2010 at 1:33 AM

Drill, baby, drill ... more.

One day after finding coal tar in the city's bedrock, the EPA wants to expand the city's coal tar investigation.

The EPA would like Sandusky to drill a fourth hole west of the first three holes to determine if the coal tar plume lurking beneath the Paper District is larger than previously thought.

Brian Patterson, of the Ohio EPA, said he doesn't know yet where that fourth hole might be located. Malcolm Pirnie, the city's environmental consultant, will determine a location soon.

"I'd like to have some idea on the extent of where this stuff is," Patterson said of the plume.

The news of a fourth hole came just one day after employees from Frontz Drilling appeared to have found coal tar in the bedrock beneath the city.

On Monday morning, drillers found a "dark brown, oily substance" 25-28 feet below the surface.

The substance smelled and looked like coal tar, city officials said, and will be taken to a laboratory to be tested.

If the coal tar has indeed seeped into the bedrock, the city's containment plan -- build a wall down to the bedrock -- would be rendered ineffective because the coal tar could potentially flow under it.

For months and months last year, city leaders were mired in contentious arguments about whether coal tar seeped into the bedrock.

Most city commissioners and environmental consultant Partners Environmental insisted it hadn't. City commissioners Dan Kaman and Dave Waddington and brownfield consultants Bob and Ruth Haag said it had.

The arguments led, at least in part, to city officials firing the Haags, who were rehired earlier this year after a new city commission took office.

On Tuesday, Bob Haag said the fourth hole will be located west of the first three holes, because a recently discovered Sanborn Fire Insurance map from the 19th century shows a coal tar well located further west than the three holes. The city wasn't aware of that well.

State and city officials also have anecdotal evidence of an oily substance being dumped into Deep Water Marina through a sewer pipe that runs southwest from the marina.

Karla Auker, from the U.S. EPA, didn't return a phone message Tuesday.

The drillers will continue their work this week. The first three holes are located at the western end of the Tricor Property, at the corner of Lawrence and Water streets near the Nielsen Canvas Co., and on the Lawrence Street right-of-way, just south of Deep Water Marina.

The first hole -- near Nielsen Canvas Co. -- is where the drillers appeared to find coal tar on Monday.

Coal tar is a description for a molasses-like blob made up of countless chemicals. It can contain cancer-causing chemicals such as benzo(a)pyrene, or chemicals of lesser concern, such as naphthalene. Previous studies said Sandusky's plume contains both.

In addition to inspecting the bedrock, the city wants to see if coal tar has reached Deep Water Marina.

Officials also want to determine how hazardous the coal tar is, if it can reach people and, if so, whether the exposure levels are harmful to residents and those who use the Sandusky Bay.

Malcolm Pirnie will oversee the drilling and analysis of collected samples. It may be a few months before the city receives a final report, Haag said. Malcolm Pirnie estimates the entire project will cost about $80,000, but the city has asked for an itemized breakdown of the bill.

A $400,000 U.S. EPA grant will fund the project's exploratory phases, but the money can't be used for cleanup or containment.

The city hoped to secure money from the Great Lakes Restoration initiative to clean up the plume, but received a rejection letter last week.

The city must now seek other funds to ensure it can contain and cleanup the plume, if the EPA deems that necessary.

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