Health agency meets residents over wood plant

Published 1:43 pm Thursday, September 25, 2008

Federal environmental investigators met area residents this week and told them Kerr-McGee’s closed wood treatment plant in Columbus poses no greater health hazard than possible skin irritation from direct contact with creosote used in treated wood.

Greg Zarus, a scientist for the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said extensive study found “there is nothing that we’ve found that can pose a health hazard, although we agree there are some odors that are uncomfortable to deal with.”

“None of the effects are toxicologically significant,” he said.

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The federal agency, which met Monday with local officials and about 100 residents, said it will welcome public comments on its findings until late November.

The Columbus plant for many years had turned timber into railroad crossties soaked with creosote as a preservative. Creosote is a mix of heavy metals and cancer-causing dioxins. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency has been scrutinizing the Kerr-McGee site since alarms were raised about possible contamination in the 1990s. It enlisted ATSDR’s help in 2002.

The plant opened in 1928 and was closed by Kerr-McGee in 2003 and spun off its chemical division in 2005. McGee Corp. spun off its chemical division in 2005.

The two federal agencies have been collaborating in assessing the extent of the contamination and whether it’s harmed people living in the area around the old plant.

The Atlanta-based agency was trying to clarify discrepancies on what residential areas were actually in the path of the pollution in the land, water and air. The ATSDR assessment included gathering health information and death statistics for people in the area.

The agency cannot require actions be taken. It makes recommendations to federal, state and local governments on what should be done.

After closing the Columbus facility, Kerr-McGee Corp. spun off its chemical division in 2005 and changed the name to Tronox.

Zarus says the agency visited about 300 other wood-treatment sites in the South and studied past data from Kerr-McGee, people living in wood-treated homes and hazards for wood workers.

He said people living in wood-treated homes suffered very little exposure and workers suffered very little effects, except from touching the creosote.

“We are still concerned,” Zarus said. “Contacting (creosote) could make you sensitive to the sun (and) light-sensitivity increases the risk of skin cancer.”

Zarus said people shouldn’t touch wood treatment residues.

“The creosote won’t hurt you, unless you touch it,” he added.

He said hazards associated with odors are strictly because it stinks and highest measures noted by the ATSDR are 50 times lower than any causing clinical effects, but contact can be harmful.

ATSDR officials say they had no evidence of chemicals from the plant contaminating the public water system.

Many local residents think they are being told everything is OK, because of the lawsuits that have been filed against Tronox.

“I’m hoping that we can get some conclusive answers instead of what we’ve been getting,” said Steve Jamison, the pastor of Maranatha Faith Center.

Jamison told the ATSDR representatives he arranged for private testing of the Kerr-McGee site and found water contamination.

Zarus said Jamison’s reports showed very low numbers.