The Environmental Protection Agency will likely need to collect more data before it can start discussing cleanup plans for the U.S. Magnesium Superfund site, an official said.
Risk assessors from the EPA and U.S. Magnesium have been working together for the past five years to sample soils, sediments, solid waste and water for different types of contamination.
Most recently, investigators completed an extensive background study on the natural environment surrounding the magnesium plant, said Ken Wangerud, the remedial project manager overseeing the Superfund investigation at U.S. Magnesium for the EPA.
However, results of the study haven’t been compiled into a final report yet, Wangerud said.
“It’s a big job to put all of this data together,” he said. “The samples of soils, sediments, solid waste and waters are being analyzed for something like 200 different chemical compounds, and there’s different analyte groups.”
The background study was done to determine if any of the contaminants present on the site, such as heavy metals, are actually a natural part of the environment there.
But the background study isn’t the only thing that’s kept investigators busy, Wangerud said.
When the EPA created the U.S. Magnesium Superfund site in 2009, it divided the 4,525-acre site into 17 preliminary investigation areas. The airshed surrounding the facility is also considered an area for investigation.
In 2011, U.S. Magnesium agreed to begin the Superfund investigation with the EPA.
“Welcome to Superfund,” Wangerud said. “I like to say, ‘We do a full diagnostic investigation.’ We’re not going to presume we know what we need to know.”
Last July, investigators used helicopters to sample some of the more contaminated areas, such as gypsum piles, ditches and the wastewater lagoons in the inner areas close to the wastewater plant, said Jennifer Chergo, EPA communications and public involvement specialist.
The high acidity of the water in some of the lagoons meant it could have been unsafe for investigators to walk up and “scoop dirt into a bucket” as they did in other areas, according to Wangerud.
“This work required trained crews taking soil, sediment, and surface water samples in sometimes difficult to access and highly contaminated areas,” Chergo added. “Crews did indeed use helicopters equipped with clamshell diggers to scoop water and sediment from above to avoid direct contact with contaminated ponds.”
Crews also continue to investigate the groundwater at the site.
“Groundwater investigations are starting to ramp up because there’s a lot of questions that have to do with what is the groundwater system out there and how might the acid waters and contaminant chemicals, what they might be doing in the groundwater system,” Wangerud said. “I expect in the next two to three months, the EPA will get a report on that as well, which we will vet; and honestly, that report will be important as we contemplate to what extent more detailed investigations need to be undertaken.”
Although it’s almost a given that investigators will have to collect more samples after the current data has been analyzed, the new reports will hopefully give the EPA a better idea of what it’s dealing with at U.S. Magnesium, he said.
“I’m hoping that pretty soon the picture of what we’re dealing with out there will start to get simpler, not more complicated,” Wangerud said. “The scope and scale of this site is a little overwhelming. … We’ve tried really hard to collect a pretty comprehensive data set so that we can understand the questions without much uncertainty.”
In addition to studying groundwater, crews have been investigating air pollution more extensively. The levels of chlorine and hydrogen chloride found in the magnesium plant’s air plume and ambient air particularly concerned EPA officials, he said.
To help monitor the emissions, U.S. Magnesium agreed to operate five chlorine monitoring stations, each located at a different distance away from the plant. Each station will record chlorine concentrations in the air every minute for one year, Wangerud said.
“I’m very much looking forward to seeing that investigative episode get started because I know there are a lot of people who are genuinely concerned about the fact that chlorine is released at that facility,” he said.
The contamination from U.S. Magnesium could harm the health of both employees and wildlife, Wangerud said.
Wangerud and Chergo plan to host a meeting in Grantsville sometime this summer to update members of the public on the status of the superfund investigation. They’ll also email out a site update in the next few weeks, Chergo said.
A group of stakeholders, elected officials and interested citizens formed a public advisory group in 2014 to follow the progress of the U.S. Magnesium site through the superfund process. The last time EPA officials updated the U.S. Magnesium Superfund Site Community Advisory Group on the process was April 2015.
“At this point it’s hard to say exactly what more needs to be done to complete the investigation phase before we can move forward,” Chergo said. “We do know that we will need to complete the air sampling, and there will likely be more sampling necessary at the site as we evaluate the data we now have. … So, in summary, it’s a long way yet to a cleanup, perhaps years.”
U.S. Magnesium has the capacity to produce more than 50,000 metric tons per year of primary magnesium and other chemical products, including chlorine and salt. These products are primarily used in drinking water and wastewater treatment, as well as dust control and ice control, according to the company’s website.
The company has operated its Tooele County facility since 1981. It employs around 500 people, said Tom Tripp, spokesman for U.S. Magnesium. The plant is located at Rowley on the western shore of Stansbury Bay approximately 25 miles northwest of Grantsville.