Coal tar problem may run deeper than city thinks

SANDUSKY Joe Smith can see the coal tar in the Deep Water Marina. "Every time I
May 24, 2010



Joe Smith can see the coal tar in the Deep Water Marina.

"Every time I kick on the motor, that stuff comes up," he said. "You can just see it. It's like an oily sheen on the surface."

But Smith, 39, didn't know that coal tar can increase the risk of him getting cancer.

"I have no idea if it's dangerous or not," he said.

He isn't the only one.

Hundreds of local boaters who dock in the Deep Water Marina come into contact with that coal tar every year, often repeatedly. It happens when they clean, dock or anchor their vessels.

And if people fish from the docks or the shoreline, they likely have been exposed to it too, said the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency after a study in 2001.

Tim Schwanger, a local boater, said coal tar has been seeping into the bay for at least 30 years, since his family's been docking down there.

"Every once in a while, at the end of the year or if I go to the sandbar, I have to scrub it off the bottom of my boat," he said.

And although the city has a plan to contain the problem -- a plan approved by the EPA -- the plan may be seriously flawed.

Not only might it not solve the problem, the city's plan could actually exacerbate it, said Bob and Ruth Haag, the city's brownfields consultants.

"There's a belief that if the government says something is good, then it's good," Ruth Haag said. "It's a hard to convince people that's not always true."

How the coal tar got there

According to a map from the mid-19th century drawn by the Sanborn Fire Insurance Co., the city had a large coal gasification factory in the 1800s on West Water Street between Lawrence and McDonough streets.

The factory, also known as a Manufactured Gas Plant, turned coal into gas.

During that process, however, the factory also produced a thick, molasses-like byproduct called coal tar.

What did the factory do with that byproduct?

“That’s a good question,” Bob Haag said. “That’s one of the cruxes of this issue.”

According to one theory — which a company called Hull & Associates used to design the city’s current plan — the factory disposed of the coal tar in a sewage pipe.

That sewage pipe, which runs under Lawrence Street, dumped the coal tar onto the properties now known as the Deep Water Marina, the Geo. Gradel Co. and some city-owned properties in the Paper District.

If that theory is correct, all of the coal tar would be above the city’s bedrock, Hull & Associates says. 

Consequently, Hull proposed building a wall down to the bedrock, which would contain the coal tar from moving anywhere else.

At the March 23 city commission meeting, commissioners Bob Warner, Craig Stahl and Brett Fuqua fervently supported Hull & Associates’ plan.

“If we have a plan and we spent thousands of dollars on it, follow the plan,” Warner said. “We don’t need to do any other plans on the coal tar plume.”

According to a number of city maps, however, there is a high probability Hull & Associates’ sewage-pipe theory is incorrect and its plan is fatally flawed.

On Sanborn’s map of the coal tar factory, the factory had a structure called the Tar Well. The Haags said it’s likely — given the structure’s name — that the factory placed its coal tar in the Tar Well.

If that’s true, the Tar Well, given its depth, would have deposited the coal tar into the bedrock, not above it like Hull & Associates claims.

Consequently, if the Hull & Associates wall was built, it wouldn’t stop anything: The coal tar would just ooze under it.

“But we can’t know 100 percent if that’s true unless we drill down there and find out for ourselves how deep the coal tar is,” Bob Haag said.

In a 2006 proposal to the city, The Haags said if the sewage-pipe theory is incorrect, Hull & Associates plan could actually make the problem worse: Their wall could redirect the coal tar into new areas, and make the problem more widespread and the health risks even greater.

“That’s always a question when doing remediation,” Bob Haag said. “Is the plan going to make things worse or better?”

Future Action

At last week’s city commission meeting, despite the fervent objections of Warner, the city voted 4-3 to proceed with drilling to find out if the coal tar is in the bedrock or not.

Commissioner Julie Farrar, who usually votes with Stahl, Fuqua and Warner, instead voted in favor of the drilling because she said it wouldn’t cost the city’s General Fund any money: The city has $400,000 in grant money which can be used for environmental assessment.

Commissioners Dave Waddington, Dan Kaman and Pervis Brown also voted for the drilling.

According to the Brownfields Committee, the city would like to drill two holes on city property and a third hole on the Gradel property to find out the extent of the problem. Scott Schell, the city’s economic development specialist, said he will seek permission from the property’s owner to drill that third hole.

City commissioner Dan Kaman, the chairman of the Brownfields Committee, said he believes Gradel’s owner will consent.

“We need to do this to find out how bad this problem is,” he said. “Then we’ll know what we need to do next.”

Warner suggested the city should wait until it has a developer for these properties before spending any money, given the state of the economy.

But Kaman said the city has to take action now. He doesn’t think it’s wise to find a developer, and then find out the coal tar problem is worse than the city originally thought. That could stifle any future development or lead to broken promises.

“This has been the elephant in the room for 40 years,” Kaman said. “This parcel of property is the most valuable the city owns. We need to prepare it now for future development.”