Superfund Flooding Sites Pose Risks to Ohio Valley

Dec 28, 2017

Parts of Paducah flooded in 2015
Credit CREDIT COURTESY OF PADUCAH POLICE DEPARTMENT

Distler Farm lies just outside of Louisville. The pastoral name is a bit misleading. In the 1970s this “farm” was a landfill for medical and agricultural waste. It was placed on the EPA’s Superfund list of hazardous waste sites that could pose a risk to the surrounding community. 

One thing adding to that risk: Distler Farm lies in the 100-year flood zone of the Ohio River. An AP analysis of EPA data found 16 federal Superfund sites in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia that lie in floodplains. It’s one of the factors Larry Hughes has to keep in mind as Superfund branch manager for Kentucky. 

“The main thing you might be worried about, and it would depend on the degree of flooding I would think, would be if you had some erosion you had to repair.”  Hughes said. 

AK That happened once at Distler Farm in the 1970s, when erosion from flooding unearthed drums full of toxic, medical waste. The site is now considered stable after cleanup action, but it’s still on the EPA’s National Priorities List of sites that present a significant risk. 

Hughes says in some cases, the strategy is to contain contaminants that cannot be removed.  “They reach sort of a technical impasse where there’s just not much more you can do [even] if you could throw all the money and all the technology in the world at it. And a lot of those sites, they’ll just sort of put a cap on it and monitor that groundwater and the conditions in perpetuity sometimes.” He said. 

But the AP data analysis shows 5 of the Ohio Valley’s flood prone sites are not capped. And the federally listed sites aren’t the only ones of concern. The Kentucky Department of Waste Management keeps its own list of hazardous sites. When the Ohio rose to near-record levels in 2011, the state alerted hundreds of waste sites to be sure their toxic containment was holding strong.

Hughes says it is a struggle to keep up with this legacy of industrial waste. “We have very limited funding and resources. And you have such a mountain of sites to deal with,” he said.