AEP vacuum truck

An AEP vacuum truck removes contaminated soil from a substation on Curran Drive. Photo a screenshot from a video posted by Rosemarie Basile.

AEP is working to remove a historical spill of toxic chemicals from a power station on Athens' west side.

The power company discovered  the spill during work on a series of upgrades and renovations of local power infrastructure at the Clark station on Curran Drive in Athens, said Deanna Gilliland, spokesperson for AEP.

According to a spokesperson for the Ohio EPA, the chemical discovered was an old spill of a chemical formerly used in transformers called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. The incident is estimated to have occurred around 30 years ago, Athens City Council Member Arian Smedley said.

“(The spill is) something that happened at some point in the past that since we’ve discovered it — we have to remediate,” Gilliland said.

A spokesperson for the Ohio EPA said the federal EPA handles incidents of PCB spills. An EPA spokesperson said it appeared the incident was a “minor cleanup that didn’t require notification to U.S. EPA.”

PCBs belong to a broad family of man-made organic chemicals known as chlorinated hydrocarbons, according to the EPA website. PCBs were domestically manufactured from 1929 until manufacturing was banned in 1979 due to toxicity to animals and possibly humans.

PCBs have been demonstrated to cause a variety of adverse health issues in animal tests, including cancer and effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, endocrine system and other health effects. Studies in humans suggest that PCBs may be carcinogenic and have non-carcinogenic impacts on human health.

PCBs do not readily break down once in the environment, lingering for long periods while cycling between air, water and soil. The chemical can also accumulate in the leaves and above-ground parts of plants and food crops. They are also taken up into the bodies of small organisms and fish.

AEP teams are using an “air knife” to cut out the contaminated soil and gravel, vacuuming it with a special truck and hauling the material away in blue hazardous material containers, Gilliland said. She added environmental experts and coordinators have been working on the site to ensure removal happens in compliance with EPA regulations.

Some residents have expressed concern via email regarding dust coming from the site, although Gilliland said there is not a risk to individuals during the soil remediation process.

“Individuals shouldnt have anything to be concerned about — safety is a top priority on all of our job sites and all of our projects,” Gilliland said.

Athens City Service Safety Director Andy Stone said members of the city’s Wellhead Protection Team visited the site last week to ensure the protection of aquifers the city draws water from. Athens’ water comes from 15 groundwater wells situated on the west side of the city, according to the city’s website.

Stone said the contamination is a “long way” from the aquifer wells and it was only two feet deep at the most, but emphasized the importance of maintaining the water.

“But it’s not something we would leave there. It is better that it is being removed.” Stone said. “I’m glad they found it and I’m glad they’re removing it.”

Smedley said she has received concerns about the noise created by the removal and discussed the issue with a company liaison, who said AEP was looking into the possibility of removing the remainder of the contaminated material manually with shovels, although they said that would take longer than with the vacuum.

Stone said AEP told the city work on soil remediation would be done by the middle of this week and they would provide a final report to the city on the chemical removal process.

“Beyond that I just encourage American Electric Power to go as quickly as possible,” Stone said.

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