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Funding dispute delayed review of pollutant tests

Monday, February 22, 2010 | 3:52 p.m. CST; updated 4:41 p.m. CST, Monday, February 22, 2010

KANSAS CITY — An investigation into possible environmental contamination at a day care center and another building at the Bannister Federal Complex was delayed almost two years because of quibbling over a few thousand dollars.

In 2008, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources was asked to review test results from a study at the two buildings. Workers and former workers recently have become more vocal about health concerns, specifically cancer.

But the department refused because the General Services Administration, which owns the buildings, would not pay the $3,000 to $7,000 cost of the review, according to documents and interviews.

It wasn't until last month that the department looked at the results after news accounts of workers' concerns. And when it did, the agency found flaws in the report and warned of possible risks to human health. The department asked for more testing, which is underway.

A spokesman for the department said the state agency has severe budget problems and needed the money before it could proceed.

"We don't have any reason to believe there is a health risk," said Charlie Cook, the General Services Administration's communications director.

Initial vapor samples taken recently were clean, the Environment Protection Agency said Thursday.

But after discussions with the EPA, General Services Administration officials decided to install a vapor ventilation system in the buildings last week, mostly to quell concerns by workers, parents and children, Cook said.

The EPA also plans to conduct more groundwater, soil gas and soil sampling around the two buildings after the ground thaws.

About 80 adults and children are in Building 52, the day care center, at the complex. An estimated 30 employees work in Building 50, which is the General Services Administration's Kansas City south field office.

The complex was built in 1942 to make airplane engines for Navy fighter planes. After World War II, the building, which contains 5.2 million square feet, was divided, having separate ventilation systems but shared sealed doors, common walls, fresh water supplies and plumbing, according to the EPA.

Half of the building is owned by the Department of Energy and is where nonnuclear components of nuclear weapons systems are manufactured. The other half of the building houses a variety of federal agencies, including the General Services Administration.

The complex has been classified as a Superfund site and will remain so until it is cleaned up. The pollution is being monitored to prevent its spread. More than 700 chemical pollutants, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) and trichloroethylene (TCE), have been found on the site, and several massive plumes of contaminated groundwater lie underneath it.

The General Services Administration contracted with a private firm to do "vapor intrusion" sampling in 2008 in Buildings 50 and 52 after concentrations of volatile organic compounds were detected in some soil and groundwater samples near Building 50.

In the first round of sampling, TCE was detected. One sample was far above the federal safety standard. In a second round of sampling two months later, TCE was detected in Building 52, the nursery, but it was below the standard, according to documents.

The private engineers searched for a cause, but when they did not find it, they deemed that "no further action" was needed and sent the report to the department, which was overseeing environmental issues at the complex.

But the department would not review the report, saying it needed to be paid first.

Missouri Department of Natural Resources officials say a proper review would cost $3,000 to $7,000. The General Services Administration says it is trying to work out an agreement with the department, and it considers the state agency to be a "partner."

But news stories have raised concerns in recent months as some workers at the complex have complained about a possible higher-than-normal rate of cancer.

In December, the department agreed to offer "initial comments" about the 2008 tests only because of ongoing discussions about the reuse of the plant, said Judd Slivka, the department's communications director.

The department also asked the state Department of Health and Senior Services to review the report.

In January, the department and the Health Department said they had serious concerns about the 2008 GSA study.

They warned the GSA that they believed the study was flawed and had "data gaps," and they recommended a more comprehensive evaluation of vapors, groundwater and soil gas.

"This situation warrants careful and complete investigation," Cherri Baysinger, leader of the Health Department's bureau of environmental epidemiology, wrote to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

The department also raised concerns about the danger to humans.

"Risk to GSA employees, as well as the noted population of children at the day care, needs to be addressed," wrote Branden B. Doster, the head of the department's remediation and radiological assessment unit, to the GSA on Jan. 15.

As a result of concerns raised by the state agencies, the EPA conducted the air vapor studies two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the General Services Administration and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources are continuing to negotiate the cost of an agreement to pay the department for work.


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