Thursday, July 25, 2013

Environmental Protection Agency to test toxins at Avionics site near Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport (KCHO), Virginia

The EPA is conducting an assessment of long-term risks related to contaminants found in the soil at the abandoned Avionics aircraft production facility near the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport.

Federal environmental regulators are investigating the discharge of a carcinogen and other toxins into soil and groundwater at a shuttered avionics plant in Earlysville officials said. 

Five toxic chemicals have tested positive at the former Avionics Specialties, Inc. site just west of Charlottesville Albemarle Airport, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Among those toxins is tetrachloroethylene, also known as PCE, which has been linked in medical studies to bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, bone marrow tumors and increased risk of spontaneous abortion. Known for its sharp, sweet odor, the compound is used in dry cleaning and metal degreasing, according to government websites.

Other chemicals found at the plant site include methyl chloroform, trichloroethene, ethylidene dichloride and vinylidene chloride, the EPA said.

“We only started the investigation, so we don’t even know the entire universe of contaminants that may be present,” EPA Project Manager Donna McCartney said. “But before anything else, the extent of the contamination needs to be delineated, defined and remedied.”

The investigation is expected to take 18 months, McCartney said. Field work is expected to end in August, McCartney said.

The toxins first were identified as part of standard closure activities when Avionics shut down the plant in 2010, McCartney said. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality alerted federal regulators to the problem, McCartney said.

Avionics Specialties, now known as Aerosonic Corporation, purchased the plant in 1993 and operated it until 2010. The company has expressed interest in selling the site, McCartney said.

Officials at Aerosonic’s Clearwater, Fla., headquarters declined to comment.

While all five substances are considered toxic, only tetrachloroethylene is potentially carcinogenic.

McCartney said her agency will not know the extent of the risk until the investigation is complete, but nearby homeowners already are concerned.

“We’ve informed them of what’s going on and they’re as anxious to get these results as we are,” McCartney said.

Reo Hatfield, who has lived in the nearby Walnut Hill community for nearly five years, said he was unaware of the dangers posed by the toxins at the site less than five miles from his home.

“I still don’t know exactly what they found,” Hatfield said. “There’ve been some rumors, but all I know is that it’s carcinogenic and I don’t even know that to be accurate.”

Homes in the community were fit with carbon filters in 2007, but Hatfield said neighbors still were unsure about the level of threat. The EPA has informed homeowners of the latest problem, but not of the risks the chemicals could pose, Hatfield said.

“All of us out here have water wells. It’s obvious that someone needs to verify this,” Hatfield said. “Most the people here are intelligent people, they would recognize the sincerity of being truthful and we could address any issues known. Addressing the unknown is the greatest fear.”

Officials said the troubles at the Avionics site are unrelated to another point of contention for Hatfield and neighbors in Walnut Hill — blasting at the airport as part of a runway extension project.

Airport Executive Director Melinda Crawford said officials there have been in close communication with the EPA.

“We are aware of the situation,” Crawford said, “and we are monitoring it closely.”

Albemarle County supervisors Chairwoman Ann H. Mallek said officials were made aware of possible problems at the site in the late 2000s, but the EPA investigation raises deeper concerns.

“I’m certainly looking forward to hear more from the environmental folks about what they’re planning to do,” Mallek said. “I would think there should be zero tolerance for something like this. They need to clean it up.”

The plant sits on 12 acres adjacent to the southwest corner of the airport. The facility was built in 1954 by Teledyne, Inc., later known as Teledyne Industries, Inc., as an aircraft instrumentation production plant, McCartney said.

Teledyne owned and operated the facility from 1966 to 1992 before selling to Avionics.

Last year, the EPA reached a settlement with both companies to investigate the chemicals discharge and evaluate cleanup alternatives.

The vacant plant, several other empty buildings and a chemical storage garage sit on the site, according to the EPA.

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